Critic's Notebook: Sundance Needs to Go on a Diet

Main Street in 2017 (left); Robert Redford at the festival in 2002

The festival has grown too unwieldy, THR's chief film critic writes, and could address logistical concerns and make a statement of artistic integrity by downsizing.

There are many different possible takeaways from the 2017 edition of the Sundance Film Festival, but the following is one of them: This is the year that it can be definitively said that Sundance has grown too big for Park City. I’ve been here every year since 1985 and so have witnessed every stage of the growth of both the festival and the town. It’s easy to be nostalgic about the early days, when you could find a parking space on Main Street anytime, most of the screenings were at the Egyptian, the awards ceremony was held in a hotel dining room and there were precisely two taxi cabs in the entire town.

But I’m not nostalgic, and that’s not the point. I think it’s extraordinary what Sundance has become, and what it’s done on behalf of Robert Redford’s stated original intent, which was to serve the interests of the filmmakers. Everything else was secondary. So many careers have been made, boosted and celebrated here, and what started as a small gathering of like-minded pioneers making films outside the Hollywood system (however much many of them craved becoming part of it) has become one of the three or four essential destinations on the international festival circuit.

Sundance grew in spasms, responding to the sudden growth spurts of the independent American cinema — along with increased specialized distribution — through the 1990s and beyond. Park City grew enormously as well, partly because of the attention the festival brought to it; crucial venues — the Eccles, the Racquet Club (now the MARC) and then the more far-flung Temple and the Redstone screens — vastly expanded the festival’s capacity to handle more screenings and audiences. But while Park City may have become known to some initially because of the festival, much more responsible for the boom in the town’s fame and fortune were the area’s growth as a ski destination and the Winter Olympics in February 2002, which made Park City internationally known.

It’s hard to put an exact date on it, but pop-up branding sites and retail establishments starting turning up on Main Street during the festival in the '90s, and by the end of that decade, traffic was getting pretty bad on the weekends. There was a time Redford threatened to take the festival elsewhere (Los Angeles was one mentioned possibility) unless the city complied with certain requirements, and obviously he prevailed, as a deal was made to keep the festival in Park City for many years. That agreement has reportedly been extended until, I believe, 2020, at which time the issue can once more be addressed. But I’m told — and I firmly believe — that Redford will never move the festival out of Park City, no matter what.

And I don’t think he should; the mountain setting is integral to the festival’s identity and its timing as the first major international festival of the year is ideal. But something’s got to give. This year it became painfully obvious that there were too many people and cars for Park City to handle. The snow didn’t help, nor did the Women’s March, which closed down the main drag for hours. But those were exceptional events. The traffic has been horrendous, the logistics ridiculous. I took two Uber rides of less than 10 minutes’ duration that each cost $60. There’s no other film festival in the world where the physical combination of weather, distance between venues and too many people in a small town create such obstacles to doing what you’re here to do.

Since I don’t believe the festival will ever move, I see only one possible alternative: It should deliberately shrink itself a bit. Under the venturesome yet steady guidance of John Cooper and Trevor Groth, Sundance has grown to the point where you can reasonably call it a mature festival. The addition of the Next category a few years ago was an excellent move, and the international sections have consolidated to proper sizes.

But the impulse to constant growth does not have to be indulged; the Sundance Film Festival is not an international corporation or a ravenous sea monster that must keep growing or die. A tad more than 100 new films debuted at Sundance in 2017, which is more than enough, maybe even a few too many. If the impulse to trim the festival’s sails a bit were to be considered, it could be initiated by eliminating three or four titles in the Premieres section, where there are always a few duds. The competition categories, the core of the festival, should remain as they are, whereas the number of films in the remaining categories of Next, Midnight and Kids should be flexible, as they already seem to be up to a point, depending upon the quality available.

Because television is where so much of the great action is these days, and because there is an increasing overlap and blurring of what constitutes cinema and television, Sundance is going to have to decide how to handle what was formerly considered an entirely different medium. The festival has started wading into “television” and video, just as it has always provided a sampling of avant-garde fare. But because the amount of quality and adventurous work will increasingly be done for what is broadly called "home entertainment," trying to accommodate all this visual work under the banner of the Sundance Film Festival will inevitably bust the seams of the place.

One option would be to keep the number of programs more or less fixed and invite only the best from both worlds, thereby avoiding the issue of what should be deemed film or television (Sundance scored a major and daring coup last year by running the entirety of the extraordinary eight-hour documentary O.J.: Made in America on opening day, although I can’t imagine too many people sat through the whole thing at the Egyptian that day. That said, Sundance can still claim the “film” as one of its own.)

An alternate approach to keeping the fest from growing to an ever-more unmanageable size would be to do what is still done in Europe, which is to stage separate film and television festivals. Even though the dividing line is growing increasingly vague by the day, definitions and ground rules could undoubtedly be promulgated.

The other factor I personally have no idea how to address is the fact that so many people are in Park City during Sundance who are not there to see, or work on behalf of, the films being shown. In the early days, undue crowding took place over the opening weekends when loads of college students from Salt Lake City and Provo piled in just to hang out on Main Street and gawk. The festival eventually got a handle on that. But now so many people come for reasons perhaps affiliated with aspects of things related to the festival, but not necessarily intrinsic to it.

I recall a year early on, more than 25 years ago, when Clint Eastwood made his only trip to Sundance, accompanied just by two of his close colleagues from Warner Bros. Eastwood walked the streets, checked out a couple of indie films at the Egyptian and the Holiday Cinemas, participated in one program and at night knocked back beers in the basement of one of the few local bars allowed to operate then while enthusing about a script called Unforgiven that he was looking forward to making soon. No one bothered him, and I’ll never forget the look on a local cop’s face when he ticketed Dirty Harry’s car late on a Saturday night for being parked slightly into a red zone. The ticket was torn up.

Now, every member of the cast and crew of every film seems to show up at Sundance, along with entourages of varying sizes. You go to parties where your first thought is, "Who are all these people?" As someone who’s been coming here virtually since the beginning, I can testify that Sundance is the only film festival in the world where, as you keep getting older, the filmmakers always remain exactly the same age. And I’ve had several 50-years-or-older taxi drivers this week readily (and remarkably cheerfully) admit that the biggest mistake they ever made was not investing in real estate back in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The festival is not leaving town. So here’s one vote for it to lose a few pounds and tighten its belt a notch as a statement that quality, refinement and efficiency — and not unlimited growth — are Sundance’s intentions going forward.