While hundreds of stars turn out for Sundance, only a handful actually attend the screenings, and then it's usually only for the films they have direct involvement in. Several dozen corporations host clients for skiing the Deer Valley slopes, drinking at hospitality suites, expensive dinners and overly-hyped parties featuring "B" list talent. Last Saturday evening, Paris Hilton was in the back seat of the large SUV in front of mine on Main Street in Park City, bringing already slow traffic to a grinding halt. Although the van had tinted windows, Paris had rolled her window down and turned on the interior light to make sure that the throngs of young revelers crowding the street wouldn't miss her. Hundreds swarmed around her car in a scene that was more Mardi Gras than Sundance, with young men exposing their naked chests in the 10-degree weather and young women screaming to get Paris' attention. She loved it, although I'm sure she was upset the paparazzi were nowhere to be seen, undoubtedly still in L.A. to stay focused on Britney, who somehow recognized Sundance would not provide sufficient photo ops.
But film fans remain dominant at Sundance. The screenings are packed, with long stand-by lines of fans hoping to gain access when party-going ticket-holders fail to show up. Conversations focus on film picks and pans. Producers and studio executives huddle in hotel lobbies, try to muffle their voices as they yell into cell phones, and hustle out of screenings to decide on negotiating strategies. Cell phone calls interrupt executives at dinners, parties and even on the ski slopes.
At a screening for "Good Dick" by first time filmmaker Marianna Palka (who wrote, produced, directed and starred in the film), I sat next to a fan who personifies Sundance -- the film festival. A 17-year-old high school senior, he and his mom have been paying $3,000 each for the past three years for an all-access pass to Sundance films. From early morning to late night they attend films, standing in lines to assure they get perfect seats. Between films, they compare notes on the films with sophisticated perspective and insight. But over the past few years the Sundance of true fans and professionals has been progressively sublimated to the Sundance of party-goers and boondogglers.
It's virtually impossible to move around Park City without a dedicated car service. Corporations pay thousands of dollars to assure that their guests gain access to the best parties, although most of those parties are hardly noteworthy and attract only a smattering of stars. Park City bars and restaurants are rebranded and converted into corporate hospitality and party venues. Corporate concierge services offer, for premium prices, access to parties and those films that are receiving hot buzz. Corporations paid as much as $1,900 to buy $16 tickets to the Sundance premiere of the hot U2 3D film that will soon be in broad release, simply because it was the film to see and U2 would be there. For those who simply had to be at the 1 a.m. after-party with Bono, the cost was an absurd $2,000 per person. I have no idea how many people paid to gain access or where the funds go, but I'm certain they do not accrue to the cause-related beneficiaries of the Sundance Foundation.
All the commercialism aside, Sundance is increasingly one of the film industry's annual highlights. Television networks are also capitalizing on Sundance as a venue for marketing their best films. This year, one of the hottest properties was A&E Films' documentary "American Teen." HBO Films generated positive buzz with the premiere of "Sugar," the Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden flick produced by Paul Mezey's Journeyman Pictures and Jamie Patricof's Hunting Lane Films.
Sundance may have jumped the shark this year in some ways, and in future years it will either become increasingly commercialized (expanding beyond the limited capacity of Park City and requiring it to find a new home), or the organizers will seek ways to scale it back and return it to its more manageable roots. I expect it will be the former, but at its core Sundance will remain an important marketplace; a promotional juggernaut for independent filmmakers; and a testament to the incredible power, value and economic importance of the independent film industry.