As we approach the announcement of yet another set of serial coronations—the list of films to premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival—we’re most likely all reminded of the denouement of College Admissions Day (in my time, it was April 15th). The fortunate few who were accepted at Harvard, Yale or Stanford were cracking teen-aged versions of Veuve Cliquot, while the rest of us sweated over whether any institution of higher learning would allow us onto their far-less-hallowed campuses.
It’s worth providing a perspective on the Sundance machine, being that Rikaroo’s mission continues to focus on discovering the neglected gems from among the swarming mass of “content.” If past years are any basis, this year’s festival has probably received no fewer than 9,000 films to consider; out of that number, perhaps 150 of those will be chosen to premiere at Park City in January, 2016. Sixteen of those will be full-length feature dramatic entries.
Perspective helps us all—those chosen and those rejected—to take the long view. It’s not just schadendfreude to observe that most of the 2005 Sundance premieres—the films themselves–have dropped into the dustbin of film history with nary a pling! regardless of the high hopes predicted back then.
I don’t want to delude you, gentle reader; there are writers and directors whose 2005 Sundance premieres have jolted them into a larger arena. Cary Joji Fukunaga went on to direct “True Detective” and, more recently, “Beasts of No Nation.” Patricia Riggen was given an Honorable Mention for her short film “Family Portrait” and has gone on to direct other films, most recently “The 33.” Craig Brewer (“Hustle and Flow”) has built on his 2005 success with several other projects, including “Footloose” and “Black Snake Moan.” Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”) has a raft of projects he’s written and/or directed since 2005, including “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Margot at the Wedding” and “Frances Ha.” And Rian Johnson, who won a Special Jury Prize for “Brick,” is now writing the newest installment of the STAR WARS series (number VIII). Ira Sachs (“40 Shades of Blue”) has directed three films in the past ten years, including “Love Is Strange.”
But there are many others whose careers have either stalled or even flat-lined.
Andrea Arnold, whose short “Wasp” premiered in 2005, won an Oscar for that film and then directed three features, including the 2011 “Wuthering Heights.” She has not worked since then. Mike Mills (“Thumbsucker”) had only directed two films in ten years, until a recent lift with “20th Century Women.” Craig Lucas (“The Dying Gaul”) has only directed one feature film in the intervening years. Travis Wilkerson (“Who Killed Cock Robin?”) didn’t direct another film until 2009; he has since helmed four indies, although none of them has been distributed in the U.S. Miranda July (“Me and You and Everyone We Know”) has only directed one short film in the past ten years. And David Ocanas hasn’t had a project since his 2005 Sundance premiere of “Between.”
In other words, there are a handful of shooting stars, but just as many Sundancers who have faltered. Lives, and careers, rarely have smooth upward trajectories; all of us who have survived in the entertainment industry have our personal “Fantastic Four” moments and need to be reminded that perseverance is 90% of what factors into that survival, and yes, success.
It’s also a cautionary tale for those whose fortune will have apparently crystallized on the front page of next week’s Variety. The benediction of a Sundance premiere is a tricky dog; it’ll bite your hand off if you’re too cocky about it. As someone who cast for the Sundance Film Labs for ten years, I can attest that most of those directors for whom I labored (“Come on, how come you can’t get me Brad Pitt?”) have vanished off the film horizon.
We all get fooled by accolades. We enter the land of “the chosen.” I can claim my own moments of naiveté. How many times have I listened to agents, managers, friends assure me of my own imminent shooting-star rise above the industry firmament as soon as (insert here any one of dozens of films I’ve cast) were released in the theaters?
Success eventually came, but it hasn’t been a flare; more accurately, it’s been a slow, rising warmth that cycles up and down, a slow climb out of anonymity. Never the unblemished unicorn that we (or others) believe will suddenly materialize in our back yard.
We are, ultimately, only as good as (not our last but) our next project. Which means we just have to keep working, waking up day after day and trying to carve something that makes sense to us and our audiences. Hard work, discipline, persistence. Because there are no coronations. Deep down, most of us know that, but it helps to see the diverse, uneven careers of those we thought bore fresh crowns back in the autumn of 2004.
An amusing, perhaps ironic footnote: when I began to gather research for this article about the 2005 Sundance premieres, I’d been oblivious to a connection more personal than merely a ten-year window. 2005 was the year that I was rejected by Sundance, for a film version of my play TEN TRICKS that had had a successful run in Los Angeles. At the time I was rejected, I felt anger and envy; and yes, I gave up sending out screeners of the film after 10 or 15 rejections from Sundance clones. That film still sits on my shelves, unseen by anyone other than the handfuls who attended screenings in Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, I am filled with gratitude for the experience. Because my own perspective over time has given me a gift. Disappointing responses to the filmed version of TEN TRICKS have not diminished the experience of having crafted the piece, and then working with cast and crew to bring the play, and later the film, to life.
What’s more, I went on to write six more plays (one that actually made me money!) working with great actors and crew, having a blast getting them onto the stage, and (I believe) entertaining our audiences.
None of them premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. I didn’t need them to. For one thing, they were plays, those ephemeral, present-tense kinda things that you had to be there to see. Instead of the bright lights of Park City, I got to paint the walls of my own artistic life with gallons of starlight. Which I’ll take any day over mere sun.
So I’d like to invite all those who have sent films to the Sundance Film Festival (or any other festivals, for that matter) to let us know your experiences of exuberance, humiliation, or anywhere in-between. It helps to know you’re not the only one going through the Steeplechase of our schizophrenogenic (yes, look it up) industry. How does putting your craft on the line for faceless arbiters of taste make you feel?