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Even if you aren’t in the film business, chances are you know the Sundance name. It’s the place to see and/or buy the best of independent films. Although Sundance just celebrated its 33rd year, making independent films became much more common with the emergence of digital technology in 2000.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2002 to be an actress. I quickly learned that actors and writers have very little control over their chosen careers. Even so, I had some cool breakthrough moments and earned my SAG card by booking an Ace Hardware commercial.
My first trip to Sundance
A friend suggested going to the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. It was literally life-changing for me. That probably sounds hyperbolic, but I’m using literally to mean literally – as one always should. I didn’t care much for the film that won that year. But when the filmmaker took the stage for the Q&A and revealed the film’s budget was $7,000 (against the advice of the more experienced filmmakers and sales agents), I realized that I could make my own films. Learning that I didn’t have to wait around for someone else to let me be in one of theirs was empowering and inspired me.
My first documentary, Store
I started thinking about what I wanted to say with a film. Previously, I noticed that storage units are EVERYWHERE, and wondered why. In June 2004, I found an investor for my documentary STORE at the Los Angeles Film Festival. In September we started shooting. Then, in February 2005 a short version (entitled Boxes) of this project was named a Finalist at the USA Film Festival. The feature version premiered at the Victoria Independent Film & Video Festival and won Best Documentary in February 2006. “Well, this is easy!” I thought to myself many times.
Eleven years and many Sundances later
Eleven years later, I’m still trying to finish my second feature-length documentary. In all fairness, I did write, direct and produce several short films including my MFA thesis film “Bottom of the 9th” which will hopefully be starting its festival run soon. I learned many things including being a filmmaker isn’t “easy.” But that’s okay. Because it’s supposed to be hard.
What is an Independent Film?
The definition of Independent film is a bit muddy, quite muddy actually, but it’s generally accepted than an indie is produced by a small studio and/or freelance producer (like myself) and the budget is rarely more than $10 million (way less in my personal case). These films are often purchased at festivals by large distributors like Netflix, Amazon and Fox Searchlight. Another level of independent film, is what I call the ‘George Clooney Indie’ that is sort of produced outside the Hollywood studio system and for less than 20 million dollars.
Now to Sundance 2017! I had occasion to chat briefly with John Cooper, the Festival Director at the end of the festival and said “Either I’m getting better at picking films, or you are because I didn’t see anything this year that didn’t deserve to be here.” We both laughed and he said, “Probably some of both.” There were 181 films screened at this year’s festival and 13,053 films submitted. One’s odds of winning the lottery are probably better than selling a film at Sundance, and yet thousands of us persist in making films and submitting them to Sundance.
It’s interesting to note that in 1996 there were just 1,950 films submitted and 184 programed.
I’m generally not one to quibble with who won what, got snubbed or nominated for creative awards because judging the “Best of” Art is rather silly to me. HOWEVER, I really disagree with some of the Sundance awards this year.
I saw nine documentaries
I saw 9 documentaries:
*IT’S NOT YET DARK
*RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World
*TELL THEM WE ARE RISING: the Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities
*RANCHER FARMER FISHERMAN
*THE GOOD POSTMAN
And the DOC SHORTS PROGRAM, which featured 8 short films.
You can see the awards guide here:
Sometimes the best films don’t win the awards
Not all of these films were up for awards, but IT’S NOT YET DARK was the best film I saw at the festival. And might be the BEST documentary I’ve ever seen. It was up for Best World Documentary. No awards. At all. 🙁 But hopefully it’ll get distributed.
I also recommend liking their Facebook page for updates.
My thoughts on the other films I saw
DINA was okay, good, fine, but I had some qualms about possible subject manipulation given that both leads have autism, and I zoned out at times.
RUMBLE was also fine, good, interesting, but a pretty standard historical info docu with talking heads and b-roll. So to give it a Mastery of Storytelling, when it didn’t really tell me a story ???
STEP was phenomenal, brilliant, exciting and inspiring. It was a much “better” film overall than the previous two. It did get a special jury award, but…. And the filmmaker, Amanda Lipitz after selling the film to Fox Searchlight, set up full 4-year scholarships for the 19 girls featured in her film. Not to throw stones, but when is last time you heard about Hollywood doing something like that?
More than anything, I think independent films are critical for democracy. With the mainstream media growing less reliable by the day (Walter Cronkite would be so sad), the ability to investigate, raise our voices and bring knowledge and experiences to society is more important than ever. I hope you’ll join me in committing to support Independent Film!