As the Sundance Film Festival opens today in Utah, mainstream moviegoing has set new records in the US. Yet independent film, the sector pioneered by Sundance as an alternative to high-budget commercial Hollywood, has lagged in recent years. With many of the major distributors of independent films now closed, only a few of this year's Sundance movies are expected to end up in cinemas. There is constant talk about digital and internet approaches to bringing those films to audiences, but the new infrastructure remains a work in progress.
Yet ambitions of the would-be Tarantinos and Soderberghs out there run as strong as ever. Submissions to Sundance were as high at this festival as they were last year - more than 800 in each of the competitive feature sections: Dramatic Competition, US Documentary Competition, World Dramatic Competition and World Documentary Competition. Six thousand short films were submitted, up 1,000 from the previous year.
The army that occupies the infrastructure-impaired Park City every January will include celebrities such as the festival's founder, Robert Redford, the actor Kevin Kline and the rapper 50 Cent, and even political figures such as the micro-banker Muhammad Yunus. There will also be the independent stalwarts and the usual pilgrims from Hollywood searching for new talent and ideas. Sundance's opening-night dramatic film is Howl, a biopic about the beat generation poet Allen Ginsberg, and named for Ginsberg's 1956 poem that became one of the era's anthems.
Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who previously made documentaries, the film combines animation with live action as it revisits the early days of the American counterculture and re-enacts Ginsberg's trial (and ultimate acquittal) on obscenity charges after the poem's publication. James Franco plays the young poet, something that even the visionary Ginsberg might have found hard to imagine.
If Ginsberg is the cultural figure whom Sundance celebrates this year, the American soldier - an unlikely hero for the pacifist Sundance - is the star of the festival's curtain-raising documentary, Restrepo. The co-director Sebastian Junger (author of the best-selling book The Perfect Storm) calls his debut film about a US platoon in Afghanistan "the ultimate embed". Sundance breaks with tradition by showing two competition films on the first night. Until now, the opening night has featured a single crowd-pleaser with a star cast that would open commercially the next day.
Sundance closes with Twelve, by Joel Schumacher, about drugs among privileged youth in Manhattan. The Hollywood veteran Schumacher, whose films include Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, stretches any notion of independent cinema. Yet this year's festival is also unveiling Next, a new section that revisits Sundance's roots with low-budget films conceived and produced for less than $500,000 (Dh1.8m) in the new reality of lowered commercial expectations. "I wish that it was just cyclical and it's all going to come back. I'm not sure where it's going," says John Cooper, the festival's new director and former programme director. "But there's been two years of chatter about self-distribution, about ways for smaller films to reach their audiences directly - just like where the music business was a number of years ago - and I think that's what we're going to see."
"Filmmakers are now forced to be entrepreneurs," says Sundance's new programme director, Trevor Groth, who foresees no drop in creativity as young directors and producers reconfigure the independent film paradigm. "It's not lowered expectations, but different expectations," he notes. "In a perfect world they would not have to be entrepreneurs, but this is not a perfect world. "People should go into these films knowing that they're not going to see some of the technical qualities that are in some of the other films. But it's not that they are any less entertaining or enlightening or powerful."
Buried, by Rodrigo Cortés, aims to redefine simplicity with its story of a US military contractor (Ryan Reynolds) confined in a coffin with only a cellphone and a cigarette lighter. One film at Sundance 2010 that eyes the old three-pronged marketing equation of cast, director and subject is The Runaways, a look back at the punk singer Joan Jett. The debut feature is written and directed by the photographer and music video director Floria Sigismondi, whose videos for Björk, Marilyn Manson and Christina Aguilera make her anything but an unknown. Jett, now 51, is played by Kristen Stewart (Twilight), one of the most-watched young actresses today, and Dakota Fanning plays her band mate, Cherie Currie. If the two aren't enough to keep the paparazzi around, in the cast is Danielle Riley Keough, Elvis Presley's granddaughter.
The Runaways is being distributed in the US by Apparition Films, the only major company formed in the past year to release independent movies. The company's president, Bob Berney, voices optimism even as he acknowledges that general trends seem discouraging. "The audience is still there," he insists, "and if everybody's closing, there's got to be room for somebody to open." Industry insiders say that last year's Sundance Grand Prize winner, Precious, directed by Lee Daniels, reminded sceptics that an audience for independent films still existed. "It wasn't a Hollywood-lite movie. It's a truly independent film - rough, challenging," says Cooper.
Almost everything about Precious seemed deliberately uncommercial. Yet, as of this week, it had earned nearly $45 million at the box office. "If that film didn't make it, I would be really nervous, because it would have meant that there isn't an audience any longer," says Cooper. In tough economic times, budgets have been cut drastically for the films that will premiere at Sundance. For the husband-and- wife team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the budget of their comedy The Extra Man is one-fourth as large as that of their previous feature, The Nanny Diaries, which starred Scarlett Johansson in the $21 million adaptation of the best-selling novel. "When you get money, it's a trade-off, and it suddenly becomes this enormous collaborative thing. We wanted to find a way to work again where we could make all our own choices and scale it down." The smaller budget was still enough to attract Kevin Kline to star as a charming escort who accompanies wealthy New York women to society events.
Real estate, one sector of the US economy that has suffered the most, is the backdrop for Please Give, Nicole Holofcener's latest film, which premieres at Sundance with a cast that includes Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener. Platt and Keener play a married couple in Manhattan who have bought an apartment but can't move in until the nasty old woman living there decides to leave. While that drama unfolds on the building's upper floors, homeless people beg for money outside.
The producer of Please Give, Anthony Bregman, says the film will be no less topical than when Holofcener conceived of it, even though real estate values in New York have dropped in the past year. "The movie is about wealth and lack of wealth in New York," he says. "It's about people who have money living next to people who don't have any." Like Please Give, The Romantics, by Galt Niederhoffer, is an ensemble work. A veteran producer at the relatively young age of 34 (and the daughter of the hedge fund manager Victor Niederhoffer), Galt Niederhoffer makes her directing debut with an adaptation of her 2008 novel of the same name, set at a wedding in Maine that reunites classmates from Yale. When The New York Times reviewed the novel, the newspaper's critic called it "well-wrought cynicism".
Niederhoffer welcomes the term. "The movie lives somewhere in between drama and comedy. There's a fine line between those two, and I think well-wrought cynicism is a good description of what lives on that line," she says. Yet The Romantics has another distinction. The project began filming in November 2009 and is scheduled to premiere on Monday. Feature films often take years to make. Independent films that struggle for funding can be marathons of five years or longer. The Romantics, in contrast, is a sprint to the finish line. Niederhoffer sounds unfazed over the telephone. "Most movies have three or four months to edit. We've been editing for three or four weeks. We're really proud of the film, but it's still a work in progress.
"People are more risk-averse than ever, and film is considered a risky investment," she notes, "although our films have always made our investors' money back, and then some." It is assumed that documentary films rarely make a profit. In the documentary competition, one of Sundance's most closely watched sections, there are as many veterans as newcomers, including two world premieres by Oscar-winning directors.
Leon Gast, who won an Academy Award in 1996 for the boxing documentary When We Were Kings, is at Sundance with Smash His Camera, which turns the lens on the notoriously sharp-elbowed paparazzo Ron Galella. (If Galella tires of watching Gast's portrait of him, he'll have plenty of stars to chase in Park City.) Also in Utah is Alex Gibney, whose Taxi from the Dark Side (2007) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Gibney's just-completed Casino Jack and the United States of Money at Sundance traces the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist and Republican party fundraiser who is in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2006 to tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy to bribe public officials. "It's about what happens when public policy is guided entirely by money," says Gibney. "That, as they say, is the bottom line."
Joining those non-fiction directors is Amir Bar-Lev (Fighter, My Kid Could Paint That) with The Pat Tillman Story, a probe into the death of the former National Football League star who enlisted in the US Army after the September 11 attacks and served with special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In April 2004, near the Pakistani border in Afghanistan, Tillman was the victim of friendly fire - shot by fellow US soldiers - but the army attributed his death to the enemy and the athlete was awarded a Silver Star before investigations revealed that US officials had deliberately misrepresented the facts. "I use the film as a leaping-off point to explore notions of heroism, and to use Pat's story to explore whom we, as a culture, needed Pat Tillman to be. And that's something different than who Pat really was," says the director.
Then there are films with stories that are even closer to home. Out of competition, the British director Michael Winterbottom will unveil his latest project, The Killer Inside Me, adapted from Jim Thompson's 1952 western noir novel. Set in West Texas and shot in Oklahoma, it promises grim brutality with Kate Hudson, Jessica Alba, and Casey Affleck in the lead as a small-town deputy sheriff with a sadistic streak.
Frozen, by the writer/director Adam Green (Hatchet), hits mountainous Utah in a delicate place, the ski industry. Its drama of young snowboarders stranded in a chairlift raises questions about what people in those circumstances might do to survive. This year, independent filmmakers could see the chilling film as a metaphor for their fate in the marketplace.