Spring 2006

Dance Man

As director of the Sundance Film Festival for 16 years, Geoff Gilmore has helped change the face of independent film. He surveys the current scene with Quarterly editor James Greenberg.

Geoff Gilmore1. How many films do you watch for the festival?

It’s kind of a ridiculous number. It’s like between 6, 7, 800 films a year. I go through a very rigorous screening and watching schedule, particularly in the final month-and-a-half where we’re watching 10, 12 films a day, every day.

2. What would you say is the most creative approach somebody has tried to get a film in front of you?

It doesn’t happen that often, but I’ve had people send me toys. I’ve had people show up at the office. Once, when I was out of town, we had a big balloon blown up outside the window of the festival office that was trying to get our attention for a film. That stuff is cute and it’s kind of funny but it doesn’t have much impact because I can’t even remember what film it was for. I can’t tell you the number of different people who have called me from all walks of life. I mean, heads of corporations, major athletes, company executives, and obviously heads of studios. I think I’ve made it very clear it wasn’t going to play any kind of a role. But some people get a little bit over the top with trying to sell things.

3. So what gets a film into Sundance?

Quality and originality. We don’t have an agenda. I can look at a range of filmmaking, a range of aesthetics. I’m not the kind of programmer who has a narrowly focused sense of what quality is, where a capital “A” art film represents the best of filmmaking. So it’s not a question of making a choice between an apple and an orange, but looking at the best apples and the best oranges.

4. In the last couple of years, as the crowds have grown, the festival has been increasingly categorized as a destination for partygoers and product-hawkers. Does this trouble you?

I remember in the old days one of the things that people would whine about was why there was nobody there to look at their movies. And guess what? That’s not the situation anymore. Now you’ve got other things to whine about. And people do. But I’m not bothered by crowds, I’m not bothered by the fact that the independent arena has evolved. I don’t think our agenda has changed that much.

5. Why do directors who are successful at Sundance sometimes have problems getting traction in the real world?

I don’t believe that the real world is just the commercial world and that the rest of it is some sort of a therapeutic arena where everyone is being very finely nurtured and told to pursue their dreams. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. But I do think we put a lot of pressure on directors these days. Do you know how many films John Ford made before he made The Iron Horse? It was more than 20. You get a sense that a director, in the old days, had the time to develop as a director, the time to learn his craft. On at least one level, it’s something that you learn by doing. And when filmmakers who haven’t had that much opportunity to do, are then analyzed as if they’re supposed to be already fully blossomed, that’s tough. It’s interesting to watch filmmakers who are immediately successful, and kind of bounce out there and get to make films, and then the filmmaker who sometimes takes a lot longer to mature and whose career tends to be much more of a gradual evolution. I do think that there’s a tendency for talent to be hot and cold in a way that’s almost absurd.

6. With a few exceptions most independent companies are adjuncts of the major studios, and a lot of indie films now have major stars. Do you think it’s become more difficult to tell the difference between a mainstream and an indie film?

I think that there are grey areas where you have boundaries that are difficult to tell. But, on the other hand, the Jennifer Aniston film that opened the festival [Friends With Money] is such an enormously different story than the Jennifer Aniston film [Rumor Has It] which was in the theaters at the same time. To call them both Jennifer Aniston films is almost to confuse the issue. The fact that one is by a director, Nicole Holofcener, who is telling a story which is practically like Chekhov, is a hell of a lot different than the kind of generic romantic comedies that sometimes get thrown out there.

7. So how would you describe independent film at this point in time?

One of things that the independent arena has done is very much evolve. Now it’s a spectrum of work that goes from the mainstream to the kind of archetypically small and on the edge. And that’s something that people don’t like to look at. They like to think that one or another part of it is representative of the whole thing. They don’t like to come back and say, well, the independent film arena is now represented by these range of styles. No, they want to say it’s represented by this or that. And I don’t think that’s true.

8. Sundance was supportive of documentaries before it was fashionable. Are you surprised they are becoming more commercially viable now?

Year after year after year we were asked, ‘Why are you doing this with documentaries? They’re not going to succeed theatrically.’ And I’d say I don’t agree. It’s just taken an awful long time for what used to be archetypical documentaries–the educational, talking head, social issue kind of work–to broaden their base. There are films and filmmaking now that can’t even be defined by the word documentary, films like Super Size Me and The Aristocrats and Murderball. The opportunity for filmmakers to expand into the realm of personal documentaries–Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield or whoever–has been nurtured by a generation that grew up with a different kind of reality aesthetics, which clearly opened them up to thinking about documentaries in a new way.

9. How has digital technology affected filmmaking and content?

The number of digital films at Sundance this year was in the 90s [of 194 total]. A couple of years ago we were at 25. That really says something about how much filmmakers have decided that this is a real useful tool. Is it a tool that is in itself a solution to production? No, not at all. But it is significant in the sense that it’s going to open up other opportunities for people.

10. Aside from the digital revolution, what do you think has been the biggest change in directing in recent years?

There’s a broader sensibility and a different aesthetic understanding, which I think is very significant. Look at filmmaking in the '60s and you have almost a conventional aesthetic, with a very few people sitting outside of that. Now you’ve got this real, much broader spectrum. It’s not just Cassavetes vs. Ross Hunter. I don’t think people are as rigid as they used to be in terms of what their category of filmmaking is and what they’re going to do. That, to me, is the biggest change that has happened in the last decade.

10 Questions

Question and answer sessions with prominent figures outside the Guild about current creative and business issues.

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