25 Years of Sundance at the CFI's Rafael

Susan Gerhard July 18, 2006

In 1995, when the Academy was awarding “Braveheart” an Oscar, the Sundance Film Festival was making “Crumb” a classic with a grand jury prize. Other classics of Sundance’s quarter century — “Gas Food Lodging,” “Smoke Signals,” “To Sleep with Anger” — are playing the Smith Rafael Film Center this month, courtesy the Sundance Institute Art House Project. Where would we be without this particular festival’s celebration of independence? A survivor of several cycles of reinvention within the world of American indies, Sundance has remained a key force in the development and positioning of films made by outsiders, both within States and beyond. On the occasion of its 25-year anniversary, the Sundance Institute came up with its “Art House Project” to shift the high beam to what they’ve named the “unsung heroes” of independent film, art houses all across the U.S., including the California Film Institute’s Rafael. SF360 got a chance to ask a few questions of CFI’s Executive Director Mark Fishkin, one of the participants in an art-house think tank and panel this past year at the Sundance Film Festival.

SF360: How have you seen Sundance’s role in and influence on the American film landscape changing over the past 25 years?

Mark Fishkin: Sundance Film Festival is obviously the 800-pound gorilla of film festivals. As the festival’s original and primary focus is American indies, the effect has been enormous and added to the credibility [of these films] not only in the USA and Hollywood but also internationally. But to understand the full effect, one needs to look beyond the festival — which, in many respects, has developed into a market (that is not a criticism, it just is, after all; not many American festivals can create a atmosphere for bidding wars from distributors) — to the entire Sundance Institute. In many respects, the Sundance organization is the obvious heir to Lindsay Law’s American Playhouse, nurturing, developing and directing the leading American directors of tomorrow.

SF360: What other theaters are participating in the Sundance Institute Art House Project and how were they chosen?

Fishkin: There are 14 theaters participating, both profit and non-profit companies: [from a list provided by Fishkin] Belcourt Theater, Nashville; Salt Lake City Film Society, Salt Lake; Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline; Balcony Booking, Amherst; Enzian Theater, Maitland, FL; Fine Arts Theater, Asheville; Colorado University International Film Series, Boulder; Jacob Burns Film Center, Pleasantville, NY; Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor; Pacific Film Resources, Oakland; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; The Friends of the Palace Theater, Hilo; Pickford Cinema, Bellingham, WA; True/False Film Festival, Columbia, MO; Shadow/Railroad Square, Waterville, ME.

Connie White from the Balcony Film (also a veteran exhibitor ) was coordinating the project for Sundance. There were two important elements to the Art House Project: first to have a cross section of exhibitors who could participate in the 25th Sundance retrospective of American Independents and secondly, provide a structure for the exhibitors to meet and discuss, primarily, the state of specialty exhibition.

SF360: What were the most interesting ideas to emerge from the Sundance film exhibition “think tank” and where/when did that occur?

Fishkin: [It was] centered around two events: A luncheon hosted by Sundance during the festival on Monday, Jan. 23rd, that gave the project participants an opportunity to meet in an informal gathering and hopefully start an ongoing dialogue about important issues we share. The other event was panel held on Wednesday, Jan. 25th, at the Sundance Film Festival’s Filmmakers’ Lounge: “Going, going, gone? The Culture of Movie-going.” I had moderated a similar panel at the 28th MVFF with Sid Ganis, Gary Meyer, Chris Sievernich, and Jonathan Marlow. The Sundance panel was a lively discussion that was mostly positive about the future of theatrical exhibition of specialty films. Like the one in MVFF, we all talked about the external threats that have been covered by newspapers for the last year or more: the competition for people’s time, the increase/better quality of home theaters, and, of course, the collapse of the theatrical windows. In addition, there was lot of talk about the sociology of gathering in groups to tell or listen to stories. Generally panelist believed the specialty exhibitors were in a better position than the commercial exhibitors. One exception, which was discussed and certainly has become even more pronounced, is the entry of numerous commercial exhibitors into the specialty area and its impact on the independent theaters.

SF360: Why were these particular films (‘Gas Food Lodging,’ ‘Memento,’ ‘Blood Simple,’ ‘Smoke Signals,’ ‘To Sleep with Anger,’ ‘Smooth Talk,’ and ‘Heat and Sunlight’) chosen for the retrospective?

Fishkin: Sundance initially created a list on possible titles. These titles were based on practical criteria like availability, quality of existing 35mm prints, possibilities of striking new prints, etc. The list was made to assist the project participants but we were not limited to their list or any criteria. For instance, the Smith Rafael Film Center felt it would be great fun to include local filmmakers like Rob Nilsson, who won the Dramatic Jury prize for ‘Heat’ and ‘Sunlight,’ as well as Martin Rosen producer of ‘Smooth Talk.’