Sundance on the Cheap

The Sundance Film Festival begins tomorrow. Expectations are that people will be staying away in droves, film critics especially. The reasons are varied, but most of them are economic, as you might imagine.

First of all, there are fewer professional film critics around since the last Sundance festival. Anthony Kaufman spreads the word that Ella Taylor (LA Weekly) and Melissa Anderson (film editor at Time Out New York and “perhaps the world’s foremost scholar on actress Francoise Dorleac, the elder, ill-fated sister of Catherine Deneuve”) have lost their jobs. These layoffs follow an earlier round of layoffs last spring that claimed Newsweek’s David Ansen and the Village Voice’s Nathan Lee. These layoffs, in turn, came after a round of book critic layoffs.

Those critics who remain no longer have the expense accounts to travel to Park City. Plus, Sundance has become just another stop on the festival circuit, and an expensive one at that. The SXSW Film Festival has less hype and more available cabs. Cannes is warmer and Berlin has better parties. The media outlets that remain interested in Sundance will tap on some local bloggers for coverage, or, at most, send one reporter with strict orders to stay out of the hotel room minibar. As Karina Longworth writes, “is there even going to be any media left for publicists to sell fictions to?”

Bashing Sundance has become as fashionable as attending Sundance once was. Its troubles reflect those of independent American filmmaking as a whole, which is troubled by factors having little to do with the current economic meltdown. The disastrous fall of 2007, when there was a surfeit of excellent American films that did poorly at the box office, demonstrated that the distribution channels couldn’t handle the quantity of films aimed at thoughtful grownups. There are only so many movie screens in America, and the competition for them has gotten tougher.

Starting tomorrow, I will be covering Sundance from a different screen altogether: iTunes. Over the next 10 days 10 short Sundance films will be available for free downloads. The screen will be smaller, but otherwise it’s an ideal viewing experience, at least for me. It’s been snowing in Chicago steadily since Thanksgiving, so it feels a bit like Park City. Plus, short films are perfect for someone nursing some broken ribs (jogging accident). Then again, sitting in front of an iMac means I won’t be able to attend any Sundance karaoke parties.

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