Experiencing the Sundance Film Festival firsthand

While walking down Main Street in Park City, Utah, it’s easy to forget that the crowds of people lining the street have descended on this ski haven for America’s premier film festival and not some weeklong party thrown by a conglomeration of corporations. Conversations about which parties are easily accessible and celebrity sightings are more common than serious film analysis. Signs for Stella Artois, Entertainment Weekly and AOL dot the streets and people pass out flyers to various social events, but finding information on screenings takes a little more investigating.

Over the past few years, Sundance has been scrutinized for evolving from a festival to a social event where celebrities come to promote films made with corporate money and establish their indie street cred. While this may be valid and serious film buffs might face disappointment during the weeklong festival, anyone who has experienced Sundance cannot deny that founder Robert Redford and company throw one heck of a party.

Even if access to exclusive parties is out of reach, walking down Main Street during the night can provide plenty of entertainment. Celebrities such as P. Diddy and Kevin Bacon appear on balconies to wave to the crowd, while lesser celebrities such as Dustin Diamond (Screech from “Saved by the Bell”) wait in line for club access with everyone else.

If one is lucky enough to acquire a press pass, doors open. Members of the press receive more emails about dinners, free snowboarding lessons and receptions then about screenings. Once inside these exclusive events, lavish dinners and free alcohol overflow. It’s entertaining to see large corporations, who are given excessive tax breaks and receive lax oversight, get together and spend money on celebrities and press all for the sake of good publicity. At one party, Apple computers were being given away to celebs willing to pose with one of the machines.

Another staple of the Sundance experience is the high level of self-promotion that many individuals partake in. Panel discussions geared towards specific topics in film inevitably break down into a forum for participants to swap war stories about their various productions. Screenwriters hawk their scripts, filmmakers advertise their screenings and upstart production companies promote their artists with nonstop energy. Anyone who is a good listener will not go without a friend at Sundance.

Despite these sometimes overwhelming and phony aspects, the Sundance festival still produces quality films year in and year out. Last year’s fan favorite, “Little Miss Sunshine,” just received an Oscar nomination. This year’s lineup is more low-key and features an impressive array of documentaries instead of crowd-pleasing fiction features.

The festival’s opening film, “Chicago 10,” is documentary about the infamous Chicago 7 trail that followed the 1968 Democratic convention. Other notable documentaries include “Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten,” which follows the musical career of the Clash’s lead singer and “Hothouse,” a film about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. This is also the first year that the festival has featured an exclusive array of video productions from independent artists across the country.

Perhaps Redford and company have chosen to feature more low-key films this year as a response to the heavy amount criticism the festival took last year for some of its choices. Last year’s closing film, “Alpha Dog,” is not only a terrible movie but can hardly be labeled “independent.” Early buzz from this year’s festival has not specifically targeted one film for post-Sundance success, although several films received lucrative deals. Regardless, Sundance is more than a festival; it’s a weeklong party and a chance to see the entertainment industry and its supporting corporations celebrate themselves in lavish fashion.

Kevin Craft can be contacted at kevcraft@yahoo.com.