Sundance: thumbs up?
January 23, 2009
Independent actors, directors and producers aren’t the only ones suffering in the economic downturn. Film critics, those art house aficionados whose praise can make or break a Sundance film, are becoming more rare.
"We’re an endangered species," rued Peter Rainer, the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and a regular contributor on National Public Radio. The downturn has cost a handful of Rainer’s colleagues, like the 800 shaved from Warner Bros. Entertainment, their jobs. As the critical ranks thin, it’s independent films that are the real losers. Critics have paved the gilded road for films like "Frozen River," a drama that premiered at Sundance in 2008 and now is nominated for Academy Awards for writing and acting. "Critics champion movies that don’t necessarily have the PR push behind them," Rainer said in a telephone interview Monday. "That’s the key."
A critic’s role is twofold. Their first role is obvious: they write reviews that steer people toward good movies, whether the movies have budgets of $2 or $200 million. Perhaps more obscurely, though, is the second role. Critics amass political and social commentary, a sort of pop-culture play by play, that implicates what’s happening in the real world. As Rainer puts it, "What’s going on in the movies can be more interesting than the movies themselves."
Independent film festivals are good for business, a place where critics mingle with each other and the public, and test whether a film’s buzz is warranted. Rainer saw 16 feature-length documentaries and dramas in Park City this year, plus five films screened privately before the festival. That’s hardly a critical mass, but Rainer did note a few films that stood out in the lineup.
Boxing documentaries "Thriller in Manila" and "Tyson" captured his attention, while "Prom Night in Mississippi" and "Sergio" provided an incisive look into race and politics. So why did the documentaries outshine some films in the dramatic competition? It’s largely a matter of personal taste, Rainer said, but it’s also about passion on the part of filmmakers. "It’s true of Sundance documentaries that they are more interesting as a rule," he said. ""There isn’t a lot of money in documentaries. You make the film because it’s a subject you really care about. They’re about something and they have a real reason for being, which isn’t always obvious with some of the dramatic films."
Compelling or not, documentaries still don’t have as much appeal in the mainstream as other films. Rainer doesn’t put much stock in the thought that documentaries are more marketable than they used to be. "I don’t think, unfortunately, there’s a tremendous market for documentaries in the theater," he said. Most successful films based on real life are either political films or films about competition, like "Wordplay" and "Murderball."
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Add limited audiences to the fact that some studios may buy fewer films this year in general, and the public gets the picture: chances for wide distribution remains bleak for many documentaries.
Another perennial festival conundrum for critics is to judge a movie on its merits rather than the story of how it was made. Audiences sometimes overvalue a movie for being rough and low-budget. "In the end, you have to judge a movie and not the back-story," Rainer said. "Sometimes, poverty is used as a selling point."
At the same time, films that are frankly commercial or would easily fit into the mainstream, shouldn’t be given preferential treatment at festivals. "A film that fits into the conventional Hollywood mold isn’t the first film you would choose for Sundance," Rainer said. "If you see a mainstream commercial movie at a festival, you wonder, ‘Why are we seeing this and not a movie that needs more help?’"