All around the city I witness preparations for that Bay Area Labor Day weekend get away to the Nevada Black Rock Desert for Burning Man. Sets are being constructed on the street, acquaintances inquire about borrowing my junker bike for the Playa, and people decorate their vehicles for the great escape. On a less visible front, a sub-culture of independent filmmakers prepare for another kind of tradition, consuming gallons of coffee or any other substance that help keep them up, alert and working overtime. This segment of the population is hiding in darkened editing rooms and sound suites, rushing to make last minute editing decisions, polishing sound design and preparing to sound mix their films, as the deadline for Sundance looms.
For this blog, I am charged with attending screenings and events related to film and filmmaking in the Bay Area and then writing about them with insight and wit. But I've barely managed to leave the house because I am too busy orchestrating the completion of my own short film, Lost & Found. Having started production a year ago, I am on the last leg of the journey and facing the hardest part of the filmmaking process, which is actually finishing the film.
As a filmmaker, finishing means knowing that you are done and believing you have made the best film possible, within limited time and money, constraints with which all independent filmmakers deal. It means taking a leap of faith, losing all self-doubt, and trusting that the project you have devoted your life and money to for the last year, is really worth the effort. I made the Sundance deadline an arbitrary goal for myself to finish the film because it marks an entire year since I began shooting last August. Even now the chances of doing a sound mix before September 2nd (the deadline for short films) is looking mighty slim. So why lose sleep and rush the post-production process simply to make the deadline for a festival that gets over four thousand submissions a year?
Sundance has both its share of detractors and supporters. Some sing its praises for supporting the work of emerging filmmakers, while others criticize it for being overwhelmingly commercial in nature. Chris Gore the writer of The Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide and editor of Film Threat calls it, "The mother of all independent film festivals in the United States." No matter which camp you are in, no one can deny the importance and prominence of a festival that has launched numerous filmmaking careers, distribution deals and helped so many films reach a wide audience. Sundance provides a major opportunity to meet festival directors from across the country, press people, agents, distributors, directors and build connections within the industry. The festival is mythic. And most of the independent American films that hit movie theaters across the country and reach a national audience (you) will have been discovered, bought, sold and hyped at Sundance.
So why does someone who has spent the last seven years humbly making experimental films and attending underground screenings want to get a film into Sundance? In terms of aesthetic and content, Lost & Found is the first film that has really been appropriate for Sundance. The trilogy of fairytales I had been making, were meant to be screened at experimental and underground film festivals, where the audience would be open to the fragmented narrative and the surreal nature of the work. Writing and directing this film has inspired me to make a feature and establish myself as a director. Since I am not wealthy, don't have a trust fund and don't expect to win the lottery anytime soon, Sundance presents an opportunity to toss my hat into the ring and look for a way to make the feature. More than anything I want to find a producer to collaborate with that will raise money and help to get it made.
Despite the numerous smart and talented people living here, raising money to make narrative features in the Bay Area is difficult. The area lacks the infrastructure that exists in places like New York, where a variety of production companies (Killer Film, Open City Films, IFC, Focus Features) and independent producers are connected to the larger industry, in terms of money and distribution opportunities. In an interview I conducted with Brian Benson (producer of Dopamine and Groove) for Release Print magazine, we discussed the lack of feature narrative filmmaking in the Bay Area. His advice was simple, "You need to go to Sundance and IFP [Independent Feature Project] and familiarize yourself with the system." Sundance is a way of making connections and creating a network outside the Bay Area, without having to live in New York or Los Angeles.
I am not suggesting that filmmakers need to be beholden to Sundance or any other festivals. There are numerous other distribution models. Filmmakers can use the DIY approach and distribute their films to independent theaters across the country (this is called four-walling), book their own shows at clubs, bars and campuses, or focus on direct DVD distribution. For me Sundance is simply a way of connecting to the larger film community and educating myself about different ways that I can take my filmmaking to the next level. There is nothing noble or romantic about not sleeping for a month, staying up late making crew calls and getting up at dawn to brew a pot of coffee, before you spend another twelve hours directing actors and running the show. Having the support of the Sundance Screen Writer's Lab and Director's Labs sounds downright dreamy, at this point in my filmmaking career. While the denizens of San Francisco hit the road for the carnival atmosphere of Burning Man, I am heading back into a dark room and watching my film again and crossing my fingers that I make the deadline.