Park City – Jesus tap-dancing Christ: Utah is cold. Why Robert Redford decided to throw his film festival near the end of January, in the armpit of winter, is curious, and something this particular journalist will ask about if given occasion to speak to the Sundance Film Festival founder. Until then, however, there’s plenty to keep any avid cinephile busy, for Park City during Sundance is a pulsating nerve-center for the film industry.
Not quite a city, yet more than a town, Park City sits east of Salt Lake City, nuzzled at the base of several small mountain ranges that, according to the locals, house some of the tastiest ski and snowboarding runs in Utah. Yet with the exception of a few early-twenty-somethings on the bus from Salt Lake into Park City with goggles, boots, and boards in tow, there aren’t many of these sporting folk around.
No, being in Park City during Sundance is like being in Las Vegas during the Super Bowl. Sure, a person might run into a few scattered pockets of clueless octogenarians randomly in town from Omaha for the slots and buffet deals, but the overwhelming majority of those encountered are a dedicated, fanatical lot. Walking down the ice-packed and salt-stained sidewalks of Park City, a film lover can’t help but feel that they are amongst their own, for this isn’t a trip taken lightly. Besides the cost of getting to Utah from wherever in the hell a person is actually from, there’s also the chore of getting to Park City from Salt Lake City, and the even more daunting task of figuring out a place to stay while in town for Sundance.
This last point is important to note, for unlike Vegas, which is built to handle the hospitality needs of millions, Park City isn’t built for this shit. The most unappealing, filthy, roach-infested motel in the area would have been booked past capacity months ago for triple the regular going-rate, and establishments worth even half a damn have been full for twice that long at double the price. And while there are groups of normal, non-industry people wandering here and there, much like their Vegas brethren from Omaha, a good chunk of the people bumped into on the Park City sidewalks are lean, fit, well-tanned, immaculately dressed out-of-towners who look like they’ve used the phrase “money is no object” at least twice this week.
Of course, it’s all a show. This is the Hollywood crowd, and just like the films they are promoting or looking to distribute, they understand that it’s all about what’s visible on the surface: that the image, not the product, is what sells. They don’t wear practical all-weather snow boots, or comfortable worn-in jeans, they’re rocking Bruno Magli loafers and Calvin Klein slacks. They wear double-breasted pea-coats and designer scarves that cost more than a tank of gas, and yes, they’re as important as their appearance would imply.
Yet this is how it works. Getting the funding to make a movie is only half the battle. Many films are made, put in the can, and never see the light of day because they can’t get a studio or distribution company to pick them up and invest in their theatrical release. It’s a gamble, to be sure, yet a number of films are made this way, for if the people working on the project really believe in it, they trust in that movie’s quality to get it a distribution deal.
Enter Sundance. Both independent filmmakers and those with studio connections enough to get something made (if not distributed) submit their picture(s) to the festival film commission and pray that it gets accepted. If lucky, these filmmakers and their pictures catch the collective eye of the well-coiffed studio crowd, and they get their shot at the big-time. For some films, however, although they might snag some damn-fine reviews during the Festival, Sundance is the end of the line before straight-to-DVD purgatory. Much like any business endeavor, some investments pan out, and others don’t: and Sundance is the battleground for this fight.
Yet for the uninitiated fans, and the scattered collection of journalists wandering around Park City during Sundance, it’s one hell of a scene. Filmmakers wander the streets with critics, the well-tanned Hollywood brood, and tourists alike; although the small Utah hamlet reeks of money and influence, there are innumerable opportunities to mingle with all sorts of folks, some of whom are worth a few minutes of conversation.
Take, for example, this journalist’s encounter with celebrated cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who shared a table with Scene-Stealers’ chief Sundance correspondent for a quick meal on Friday afternoon, as the eating lounge was desperately full, and seats were at a premium. Mr. Prieto casually spoke about wrapping a film shoot with Martin Scorsese a couple weeks ago, and how he’s taking a break from location scouting in New Mexico to sit on the Sundance jury this season. He talked about the challenges of shooting Argo last year, along with some of the difficulties involved in his work on Brokeback Mountain and Babel a few years before that: all while the journalist sitting across from him tried to reign in the massive shit-eating grin plastered from ear to ear.
Yes, Sundance is a little weird, and not for the faint of heart, yet it’s also a place where a person can randomly bump into a cinematographer who is responsible for some of the most exquisite work of the last decade. It’s a place where a person can run into Dexter one moment, then tun around and bump into Harry Potter the next. Is it cold? Yes. Expensive? Holy shit, yeah. But worth it? You bet your ass.