At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, amidst the usual screenings of indie films and documentaries, the festival celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Sundance premiere of one of the landmarks of modern independent film, Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape. The film’s notoriety helped solidify Sundance’s reputation for identifying and promoting edgy, alternative fare while also helping to launch Soderbergh’s career, helping to establish him as an indie auteur. The tribute to sex, lies, and videotape served, then, as a reminder not only of the vitality of independent film but also as a reminder of the social and economic role of film festivals in shaping film culture.
And yet, despite the usual enthusiasm for a number of crowd-pleasing films, including a rough cut of Soderbergh’s own The Girlfriend Experience, one of Soderbergh’s low-budget films slated for release through Mark Cuban’s day-and-date distribution schemes, there seemed to be a sense that something had changed not only at Sundance but at other festivals as well. Many of these observations were anecdotal, although Karina Longworth found a number of Sundance regulars who were skipping the festival, for reasons ranging from financial reasons to political motivations. Others cited the crowds that made Sundance, for them, something less than the ideal moviegoing experience.
But there is also the lingering perception that something is changing within the independent film industry, that it is becoming even more difficult to make and distribute indie films successfully and that the Sundance “discovery” narrative, best exemplified by Soderbergh’s own sex, lies, and videotape, is being challenged, even as a much larger number of people have access to the means to produce feature-length films. The belief that the sky is falling was most vividly articulated by Mark Gill at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June 2008, but a similar tension came to dominate the “All Grown Up” panel cited in the video, in which a number of indie auteurs, including Soderbergh, Gregg Araki, Barbara Kopple, and Tom DiCillo discuss the challenges faced by independent filmmakers in the age of YouTube.
I find this clip intriguing for several reasons: First, it both encapsulates and questions the role of the festival panel in establishing a common sense about independent film. As John Thornton Caldwell observes in Production Culture, the entertainment industry constantly engages in these practices of self-theorization. Festival panels, with their pedagogical subtexts of instructing prospective filmmakers, provide ample space for cultivating an industry common sense. Second, the Sundance panel videos, which include both condensed and full-length versions, illustrate an emerging genre on YouTube, the video lecture or discussion, such as the popular TED lectures, recently discussed by Virginia Heffernan in a New York Times column. Finally, the clip serves as a reminder of the expanded notion of the festival itself. Both Sundance and Slamdance, the festival born out of the perception that Sundance had become too commercial, have made content available online, in order to invite film buffs into the cultures of anticipation that are so essential to film festivals. This expanded festival, while expanding the audience, also alters the social role of festivals themselves, turning all of us into festival “insiders,” even while the festival itself loses some of its aura.