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Along with doubtless thousands of others, an email arrived today telling me there would be no skiing, partying, or gushing of non-existent money spent by me to attend the upcoming Sundance Festival.

Not with Coming to Terms, nor, advised 3 further letters, with The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima, nor Trinity, nor the short, Stand.

RE:  12465-UNF – COMING TO TERMS

Dear Jon,

On behalf of the Sundance Programming staff, I would like to thank you for submitting your film to us for 2013 Sundance Film Festival consideration.  Unfortunately, we were unable to include it in our Festival program this year. For the first time in our history, we received more than 12,000 submissions (12,146 to be exact), so deciding on a final program was more difficult than ever.  We selected 170 films from around the world (1.4% of the total films submitted to us), and it goes without saying that we viewed far more worthy films than we had room for in our program.  Please know that your film was carefully considered by our team, and we truly respect your hard work and dedication as an independent filmmaker.  We wish you the best of luck with your project and hope you will give us the opportunity to view your work in the future.

Sincerely,

John Cooper

Director, Sundance Film Festival

I can’t really say this came as a surprise to me, but since I got a waiver from the stiff entry fee, I thought it worth about $10 in DVDs and postage to roll the dice.  In my cynical opinion it would have been very nice to go… to ski.   On the other hand though I’d read that it was the intention of the festival to shift a bit more toward the so-called indie world of adventurousness, etc., I kind of figured this was within the brackets which seem to define such things in the USA – mostly rather conventional filmmaking perhaps spiced with some literary/narrative topical kink.   So I didn’t really think Sundance would be inviting my work – none of the things I sent quite fills that kind of bill.

So, no skiing for me this winter unless some quirk finds me invited somewhere else – I could go up on Mt Hood I suppose.

Meantime, sending entry forms to Yamagata, off next year in autumn, and Jeonju, this coming spring.  And DVDs were already sent to Rotterdam and they confirmed, after a bit of a wait, finding them somewhere in the avalanche of other films which our brave new digital world has begotten.  So we’ll see if the Dutch will be interested.   Thus far The Narcissus Flowers of Katsura-shima has accrued Dear Jo(h)n letters from Venice, Toronto, the Florence Festivale dei Popoli, the Margaret Mead conclave in New York and there must be another one or two as well.  Working on those films for (n)one. [Update, early December: Rotterdam also said no.]

Postscript:  Rummaging around in my computer files I bumped into this, written for Chris Fujiwara at his request, and then posted in FIPRESCI journal.  Chris is now director of the Edinburgh Festival.

The Big Circus

By Jon Jost

I guess I’m now an old-timer for the festival world. I’ve been going to them since 1977 I think. Berlin and Edinburgh, Deauville and Taormina. Way back then there were only a dozen or so festivals worth the name, each with its own characteristic value. Today there seems to be a festival for every day in the year, a grand “International Film Festival” of whatever obscure place you can imagine, for whatever genre and taste.

When I first went to festivals there was a practical purpose to it: festivals would get you exposure, they would provide a springboard to make a sale, for those with more commercial work it was a form of advertising. Some of this still holds true in Cannes, and perhaps a few more places. But in reality those functions have stopped. For commercial films, festivals are now a marginal matter, a little icing on the PR cake; but for non-commercial films they are almost the only matter.

Way back then there were arthouses, and little boutique (they didn’t use the word back then) distributors to serve them. Now there are virtually no arthouses and no such distributors. What once existed as a market, however small, no longer exists.

Instead what exists is an exhibition system that doesn’t pay, or in reality requires the producer/artist to pay. Most festivals require a submission fee and in effect work as a vanity press combined with Lotto. You pay to roll the cultural dice and if you win, your film gets shown at your expense. Those who can play this game – art films are still made, but they are made in the cultures which subsidize these films in the name of making their culture known on a global scale – are those able to pony up the entrance fee, make prints, crank out a bit of promo material, and exhibit at festivals. In general that’s it unless the film is basically commercial in quality, and has some effective hook – a star, a star director, a good genre story – that lets it escape the festival zoo and find a broader public. Few and far between.

So festivals have changed from being one step toward an audience to being the audience, and hence they have become a kind of cinematic ghetto, where a certain kind of film obtains a fleeting life – a page or less in a catalog, an audience of twenty or 2000, perhaps a festival circuit shooting-star life of another ten lesser festivals, and then a year later, oblivion.

The blame for this can be attributed to a number of things, the main one being the victory of Market Economy Capitalism (otherwise known as globalism), in which the primary measure of value is money, the more the merrier. According to this system there really are no other values. Crammed down the world’s throat by the IMF, World Bank, and other American-controlled entities, this has resulted in the jettisoning of any cultural values that don’t equate to the maximum profit. Another likely cause is the organic nature of culture, that it grows and dies like any living thing. Cinema seems peculiarly transitory this way, just as the flicker of 24 fps of light is, with cinema cultures flourishing briefly – Italy, France, Germany, Portugal – and then quickly falling into decadence. Currently the most vital cinematic cultures seem to be in Asia, particularly the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and some places in South America. In this floating world of cinematic flashpoints, it is natural that festivals flare and fade in synchronicity with the cinematic cultures which surround them. Where once Italy had a vital film culture, Venice played a second fiddle to the grand old lady of Cannes. Now Venice is a glitzy momentary blip on the festival calendar, forgotten the week it concludes. Cannes has a half-life slightly longer, but not much.

Ironically, being one of the few places where one can see serious, non-commercial cinema, festivals are utterly mis-tuned for such work. Festivals are circuses, places of non-stop partying and low attention spans, with a plethora of too many films to be seen; places where a film is sized up in minutes, and abandoned if it hasn’t hooked – after all there’s another one starting in ten minutes 100 meters down the street. Lots of serious cinema doesn’t work that way. And then serious cinema, like any serious art, requires attention, concentration, and time to absorb after the fact. Festivals are the opposite, a massive flush of films, one after the other, simultaneously, each shouting for attention, with no time for reflection. If this sounds like the jaundiced view of a burned-out festival participant, it is.

And yet, at least for this cultural cycle (I’m privileged to see things in a somewhat long range – if not so long as Manoel de Oliveira), festivals are about all we’ve got – to show my films, or see those of others in the same predicament. So a few words on one recent one with which I’m now quite familiar – Jeonju.

Located here in Korea in a small city a bit south-central on the peninsula, I’ve been to it since its inception in 2000. First time out it was a beautifully organized festival with a swarm of ever helpful student volunteers, who kept inquiring, “Are we doing good enough?” Their anxiety betrayed a provincial sense of inferiority that was utterly unwarranted. Even in their first year they had a very good selection of films, real audiences, and ran circles around the organization of a lot of festivals I’d been to. Since then Jeonju has blossomed into a really impressive festival, with consistently high audience levels for a range of interesting filmmaking from around the globe, with retrospectives accorded to the likes of Béla Tarr and Jerzy Skolomowski, Alexander Kluge and Pedro Costa. Naturally, Jeonju has become a beacon for Asian filmmakers, and seems increasingly recognized in the wider world.

In addition, for some years they’ve sponsored a digital filmmaking project, handing out a very good budget to three filmmakers each year to make a half-hour long film. Putting their money where their mouth is.

Naturally such a gathering brings in a good number of critics, mostly Asian-based, and the festival has provided space for serious discussion from the critical standpoint. In 2009 there were “master classes” by Raymond Bellour on “Trafic and the films of Philippe Grandrieux” and “Chris Marker and Level Five”; by Richard Porton on “WR: Mysteries of the Organism – Anarchist Realism,” and by Adrian Martin on “Manny Farber: Creative Criticism.”

So while the general picture from the festival world deserves a cynical eye (are some of these festivals I’ve sent DVDs to and never heard from again merely rackets for making a weird collection of DVDs to crank out locally and sell?) and perhaps from a filmmaker’s viewpoint a bit of caution, there remain some bright spots, where film is taken seriously and space is given outside the glittering glamor-struck spotlights of Cannes and Venice and Berlin. Short-lived but lively festivals come and go, and others like Rotterdam and now Jeonju, which have staked their ground and grown, still maintain an integrity which for the most part seems absent elsewhere. And perhaps, before I drop dead, the cultural cycle will roll over and film/video of a certain serious kind will again find a place in the larger world, one that might even offer the hope of making a living! Until then it’s a handful of festivals, and in my case, a belated teaching gig.

I note that since the above was written the director of the Jeonju festival was fired, I quit my teaching job, and my work has been rejected by a mess of festivals!

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8 Comments

  1. These festivals are all following (at least in my experience with submissions), the Pandora/Spotify business model-attract a lot of investor capital, then float on it then sell it before it collapses (watch, both of them will be sold within a year or two). Sundance probably gets enough money, but when a festival just becomes a distribution hub, its appeal depends on businessmen/people with lots of money showing up. Films are picked accordingly and you end up with another worthless business conference. Anyone thinking the cinema transcends the forced conformity of the market must have been living under a rock for a while. I suppose I don’t really need to explain this, especially to you, but I typed it so maybe someone else can get some use from it.

    I’ve been wanting to start a touring screening thing for a while; get around these worthless festivals, go around to different YMCAs and community centers like small time punk bands do and let everybody couch surf with each other and screen their films with local stuff to help draw. Go direct to the bored rural/suburban kids and show them early there’s another cinema out there. This may well be a pipe dream. If anyone else wants to help organize this, send me an e-mail, daniel.levine3@gmail.com. I’ve got one film ready to screen and another one that will be done within the next three months.

  2. I know it’s contrary to a business sense, but I have to say, Jon, you’re better off without ‘em. Sundance was nothing but a brand name from the moment Redford co-opted the festival from Texas and turned it into a cult of his own personality. The only films (mostly, as there are always exceptions) that win or even screen at Sundance are mainstream garbage made without mainstream money. It’s like they’re putting a cellophane frilled toothpick in a Quarter Pounder and calling it Beef Wellington.

    • Yes, I know. I’ve been there before (twice). I even won shared first prize back before Redford took it over and it was called the USA festival (won with Chameleon). As I wrote, my only real interest was skiing. And for some of the actors it might have been nice/helpful.

  3. If Sundance gives odds of 1.4%, consider how many of those 170 slots are actually open to films without celebrities, with no history at the Sundance Institute, with no connection to Sundance or Sundance board members, no insider recommendations preceding submission and a budget consistent with the filmmaker’s pocket, not a hedge-fund manager’s.

    In a word, how many of those 170 slots are open to genuinely independent films, at a festival which claims to be the loadstone of the “independent” filmmaking movement? Five? Eight? And of those few, how many will have to be inoffensive to Sundance’s corporate sponsors, business partners and its resort-town audience, and observe 19th century literary conventions? Now what are we down to? 2 slots? 3? None?

    Meanwhile, Cooper appears to claim he gives each of those 12,000 submissions careful consideration, with the $4500 feature from Oshkosh getting the same respectful viewing given to Sundance Institute alumni projects or the latest faux-indie star vehicle.

    Maybe the one thing Sundance can’t be blamed for is being successful (12000 submissions). With all the goodwill in the world, no organization could vet that many submissions. But then why do I still want them to blame them?

    • Courtesy of the digital shift, the old rules got broken (of having to buy in economically, or, as I did, learn how to make films really cheaply), and now festivals, especially the big ones, are flooded with films. I am certain the proportion of good ones remains the same – 1 of 100? 1 of 1000? But they have to (pretend) to wade through all that dreck to find the supposedly good ones. And those, for Sundance, will be theatrical/literary films operating in a narrow aesthetic realm we could call “conventional” – etc. And unless you are a known quantity and get to jump the line, doubtless some wet-behind-the-ears intern will be asked to see 500 films, of which they turn it off after 5 mins or less if it doesn’t jump out wham bam thankyou mam. Coming to Terms opens with a 7 minute long shot of James Benning eating a bowl of soup… But, as said, my real interest was a last shot at skiing. So…

  4. “As I wrote, my only real interest was skiing.”

    Your pathetic attempt at putting on a happy face is almost poignant. Then again, it’s no wonder your films have no resonance. No “truthful” film can be made by someone who isn’t first and foremost truthful with himself.

  5. Ah yes, again the anonymous paper ass. I don’t know who you are or what ax you have to grind, but I do know you like to veil yourself with anonymity, which tells something. Well, to be truthful to you Paper Ass, I really don’t care about Sundance and I really would have liked to go skiing. But you don’t/won’t believe that, so have it as you wish. I await your next anonymous comment. Your name is an acronym of some sort for toilet paper?

    • Sotirios Papavasiliou
    • Posted December 7, 2012 at 8:15 pm
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Somewhat related concerning these festival issues is the recent festival “blacklisting” of Caveh Zahedi’s new work, “The Sheik and I” (which is ironically about the dictatorial censorship of the Sheik of Sharjah), by a Toronto Film Festival programmer. Zahedi explains the affair in his video “I was Blacklisted by Thom Powers” just up on Vimeo:

    It’s not just that Powers (the TIFF programmer in question) found the work disagreeable, he contacted other programmers at other festivals (and even journalists) to bury it. I note, though, it’s screening tonight in New York.

    Another festival irony, regarding $undance and “independents”–I recall reading Redford was inspired to “start” the festival after seeing Texan filmmaker Eagle Pennell’s “The Whole Shootin’ Match.” The unknown film finally became available only years after the filmmaker’s passing.

    Last note–one for a little historical perspective: I recently saw Michael Snow’s “Rameau’s Nephew . . .” with a total of six other Vancouverites at our Cinematheque. I remember Rosenbaum had written about the film, so after the screening I dug up the piece, which turned out also to review three other avant-garde films he saw that year (’75) at the Edinburgh Film Festival. They were: Straub & Huillet’s “Moses und Aron”; Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman”; and . . . . . Jon Jost’s “Speaking Directly.” Find me a festival today that can deliver THAT.


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