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Now in his 17th year as director of the Sundance Film Festival, Geoffrey Gilmore continues to play an influential role in shaping the independent film world. He recently took time to speak with Scott Tobias for The Hollywood Reporter about the broad spectrum of American independent film and the dangers of trying to reduce its many incarnations or to predict its reception in the marketplace.
The Hollywood Reporter: I counted more than 40 films from last year’s festival that made it into theaters in 2006, which is a pretty significant chunk of the overall art house market. With that in mind, what can the moviegoers expect to see out of Sundance this year?
Geoffrey Gilmore: I never know. (Laughs)I’m not one for making predictions. I tend to talk about a range of different trends or things I enjoy or find interesting. It’s very hard for me to predict the marketplace, and it’s not really my job. I certainly think there are plenty of films this year that will end up in that marketplace, and we’ll see how the industry deals with that.
THR: When you’re putting the festival together, are you simply looking for the best films available to you, or are there other balances to be struck?
Gilmore: There are other balances, but that doesn’t mean we have an agenda. I’m really careful about that. The question of what one determines to be “the best” is a very complicated issue. What constitutes “best” when you’re dealing with documentaries? What constitutes “best” when you’re dealing with films that are sometimes flawed but may be fresh and unique? There are all sorts of judgments you make in terms of what a film offers up. Unlike festivals like (the Festival de Cannes) or (the Berlin International Film Festival) — which feature work from veteran, sophisticated auteurs — we’re often dealing with filmmakers who are really new to the arena. What constitutes “best” among those filmmakers is something I have a running discussion about with my colleagues.
THR: So, what constitutes balance?
Gilmore: I’m not being complicated or elusive when I say that there may be 20 different issues when you’re talking about balance. It may be an aesthetic balance. It may have something to do with perspective. It may have to do with how fresh or unique a work is. It may have to do with a genre that’s being reinvented. And what we decide to program really has to do with execution, too. Ultimately, there’s a quality to a work that isn’t a question of “difference” so much as the level at which it’s pulled off. The questions and the complications of how we program are hard to summarize. You don’t want to make the mistake that many critics make, which is to enforce a sort of critical rigidity. I’m looking at everything from genre films to art films and trying to evaluate them even though it’s trying to compare completely different objects.
THR: There seems to be an everwidening gap between independent films intended as an entree into Hollywood and true independents that are an end unto themselves. Are you now mindful of that distinction? And how does it play into the programming?
Gilmore: I think you’re wrong. I think you’re making an argument as you’re asking the question that you’re wanting me to accept — that there is a so-called “true independent,” and the idea of what a “true independent” is what you’ve just defined it as. And I don’t agree with that premise at all. I find the question of what independence is — in a world where the average Hollywood film is $100 million in production and (prints and advertising) costs — to be a lot of different kinds of things. To say that “true independents” represent a kind of parameter or to draw a line is the kind of argument and discussion that we’ve been having for a decade. And it’s not an argument where I’m going to say anything reductive like, “These are the true independents, and everything else has become part of the mainstream.” It’s just not true. Where do you draw the line?
THR: Well, there seems to be a difference between a movie like Fox Searchlight’s “Little Miss Sunshine,” which was made on a budget of $8 million with an ensemble of recognizable stars …
Gilmore: When you look at these Hollywood productions with $60 million P&A budgets, how can you call a budget like that significant?
THR: But if you compare it to something like Kino International’s “Old Joy,” which premiered at last year’s festival and was made for about $30,000 …
Gilmore: But “Old Joy” is a very different kind of independent film, and when you consider those two films, you’re looking at the large spectrum of independent work. “Old Joy” is exactly the kind of independent filmmaking that we embrace, but we don’t do it at the expense of “Little Miss Sunshine.” You’re heading toward an argument that I call “the purist’s argument.” And the purist’s argument always wants to redefine what independence is by defining what, for them, the marginal work becomes. I think it’s better to look at the full spectrum of independent film and appreciate the multiplicity of representations within it. “Little Miss Sunshine” is actually quite an interesting film in the way it redefines a genre. I find it hard to argue that what (“Old Joy” director) Kelly (Reichardt) has done is somehow a more significant achievement than what’s going on in “Little Miss Sunshine” because the latter is mainstream and thus easy to dismiss. I see a much broader definition of independent achievement, and I always have. I appreciate “Old Joy’s” minimalist aesthetic, and it’s a film I completely loved and supported — but not at the expense of arguing that that’s an aesthetic I hold dear over something like “Little Miss Sunshine.”
THR: I think the reason why you get these questions is that Sundance always is in the uncomfortable position of having to define what independence means.
Gilmore: And that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. You have to think about the breadth of what we mean by the word “independence,” because if you try to narrowly define a particular aesthetic as the most important one, you basically leave behind what I think we’ve achieved at Sundance. We’ve opened up the envelope and considered a broad set of possibilities within the independent world. I think it’s to the festival’s credit that we’re able to take films from both realms — the “Old Joys” and the “Little Miss Sunshines” — and to talk about them as films that are enormously important. Now, the question of what the industry does with them is a very different question. When you talk about the fact that “Old Joy” had such a minimal distribution compared to “Little Miss Sunshine,” you’re talking about a completely different world. That “Little Miss Sunshine” happens to reach a wider and more mainstream audience than “Old Joy” is not something we’re responsible for.
THR: But the industry does have a presence at Sundance, and you have to be mindful of that, right?
Gilmore: Of course, but “mindful of” doesn’t mean one caters to it. And “mindful of” doesn’t mean we program with that in mind. We’re aware that every year there is a range of people with a range of different agendas who come to the festival and judge us. And they have completely different arguments about what we have or haven’t achieved in any given year. You could look at some guy’s 10-best list and see six films that came out of Sundance, but does that mean that a lot of people look back at the festival and say, “That was a fantastic year”? No, not necessarily. You can go into all sorts of judgments and critiques about the festival that, to me, are a part of the complexity of putting together a festival like Sundance because you really are trying to accommodate a wide range of agendas. If one year I decided to program the festival based strictly on a market perspective, we’d wind up with a very different festival than the one we have. There’s only one person who’s ultimately responsible for the overall sensibility of the festival, and that’s me. That’s why all the programming decisions ultimately end up with me, period. It’s not a democracy. I make the final decisions, and I make them because I’m trying to balance all those complicated agendas that you’re talking about.
THR: So basically, you do the programming, and the market will do what it will do?
Gilmore: You have to do it that way. You don’t program to the market. You can’t. And yet, that doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of the fact that we’re programming some films that may do very well in the market. But I’ve never been afraid to expand the boundaries of what independent filmmaking is. And my colleagues not only address and speak toward that but support and argue for it. It’s not as if I’m alone in the room, arguing for a broader, more generic sensibility. Quite the opposite. We argue about a lot of different things, but we are united in our conviction that the festival is an eclectic being with a broad-ranging set of films. If we have an agenda, it’s to be responsive to the diversity of American independent film, both in terms of its aesthetic origins and in terms of its perspective. That’s what gives you the flexibility to program “Old Joy” alongside something like (Yari Film Group Releasing’s) “The Illusionist.”
THR: There are a number of titles in this year’s festival, such as “Zoo,” “Teeth” and “Hounddog,” that appear controversial, at least on the surface. What sort of pressure do films such as these put on the festival, and how do you handle it?
Gilmore: We’re pretty broad-minded about films that I think are edgy and could be considered over the edge, and that’s the way we’ve always been. I don’t feel too much pressure about it. And I think films like these are at the core of what a festival should be doing. At our festival, we’re always going to have people who are dismayed by what we program. That comes with the territory. That’s not a pressure.
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