In the last week of January 2015, scores of movie fans descended on Utah to watch a showcase of the best new works by American and international filmmakers at the Sundance Film Festival. Widely regarded as the festival for independent filmmakers looking for their big break, Sundance has been the springboard for directors such as Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and Steven Soderbergh, and has been responsible for bringing wider attention to such films as Reservoir Dogs, Little Miss Sunshine and Clerks.
In independent cinema, the importance of the festival cannot be understated; in 2010 nine films garnered 15 Oscar Nominations, with four of the five Best Documentary nominees being Sundance films. In what was seen by Tom Hall of Indiewire as “a return to the glory days of pure, unadulterated content speculation”, the 2011 festival saw a record 45 films acquired by distributors due to favourable exposure. It is in this exposure that the power of Sundance lies; the competitive nature of the festival (films are divided into categories for judgement) means that the best films emerge well prepared to face major Hollywood blockbusters upon wider release.
So what draws filmmakers to Sundance? The answer may lie in what the festival has represented from its inception as the Utah/US Film Festival; its goals were to showcase strictly American-made films, highlight the potential of independent film, and to increase visibility for filmmaking in Utah. With this in mind, it is easy to see the motivation for aspiring directors and writers: Sundance is a way to circumvent the Hollywood behemoth and break its monopoly on the box office. The directors mentioned above are exemplars of this ethos. David O. Russell received critical acclaim at Sundance for his film Spanking the Monkey while Roger Ebert dubbed Steven Soderbergh the “poster boy of the Sundance generation”.
Equally, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which premiered at Sundance in 1992, has frequently been hailed as the greatest independent film of all time.
It was this “Sundance Generation” of new directors from the late 1980s to the late 1990s that solidified the festival’s reputation as the haven for independent cinema, precipitating the ‘glory days’ held so fondly in critics’ memories. Yet in recent years organisers have been forced to curb the activities of companies not affiliated with Sundance; fears that the festival had become dominated by large studios and sponsors prompted 2007’s Focus on Film Campaign to combat events which distracted from film, whilst new, satellite programming categories such as NEXT were introduced to celebrate films which transcend the boundaries brought about by small budgets.
Even so, prominent directors such as Kevin Smith have raised doubts about whether their breakthrough pieces (Clerks) would have been successful had they been released after the millennium. Nevertheless, each year sees increasing numbers of aspiring filmmakers seek to emulate the success of Smith’s generation by competing in the numerous film categories at the festival with the hopes of garnering recognition for their efforts.
2015’s festival was no different, with thousands of films being entered into competitive categories presided over by juries of established film professionals. Of the films under consideration, all prize winners were independent films praised for their originality, with Alfonso Gomez Rejon and Jesse Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl receiving the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, and the Audience Award for U.S. Drama at the festival.
The film, an adaptation of Andrews’ 2013 novel of the same name, premiered to a standing ovation and was determined by Peter Debruge to be “destined not only to connect with young audiences in a big way, but also to endure as a touchstone for its generation”. It is in this sentiment that the enduring significance of Sundance is revealed once again; if the success of films like Reservoir Dogs and Clerks are demonstrative of Sundance’s glory days in the 1990’s, then surely Me and Earl marks the dawning of a new, post- 2010 golden age.
Moreover, if its Grand Jury predecessor, Whiplash is any indicator for public success, having achieved the same awards double in 2014, Me and Earl is destined for critical acclaim in the coming year. As such, Sundance looks set to continue in its capacity as an unmatched outlet for independent creativity in film.