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The folly of ‘winner takes all’

Times Staff Writer

The opening weekend of the Sundance Film Festival saw such huge crowds and unseasonably high temperatures that I kept hoping things would cool down, not only physically but metaphorically as well.

The heat outside did go away, and as many of the movie industry types headed back to L.A. and New York after the frantic opening weekend, so did the crowds. But the feeling I had that the festival ought to lower its temperature did not leave with them.

While I can be exasperated by some of the films the event features, I count myself a fan of Sundance, someone who has been coming for 15 years. I enjoy the enthusiasm of both the young filmmakers and the audiences discovering their films. I’m also aware that some of Sundance’s problems are not of its own making.

It’s not the festival’s fault, for instance, that a Winter Olympics-fueled housing boom wildly inflated the number of places where visitors to the area can stay. And if Paris Hilton and her spawn are drawn like moths to corporate marketing sponsored extracurricular activities, that is not the festival’s doing, either.

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But even factoring that in, I’m still troubled by the sense that the festival’s mores and its basic structure combine to pump up the volume to the point where things are getting unhealthy for the very filmmakers the event is supposed to assist.

What I’m thinking about is the ever-increasing hype, expectation and buzz surrounding Sundance’s centerpiece event -- the American dramatic competition.

Almost everyone with a stake in Sundance -- the Hollywood-based industry, which needs malleable bodies, the media, which need new creative heroes, the audience, which likes to be in on the ground floor, and the festival itself, which likes to have its importance validated -- so lusts after the notion of fresh new talent that the dramatic competition feels in danger of becoming a kind of meat market for youthful creators.

In an attempt to feed everyone’s needs, including its own, the festival has, in a way unwittingly, created an inflamed environment that fosters impossible expectations and does a disservice to the films and the filmmakers, not to mention old-fashioned reality.

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The problem starts with the blurbs in the Sundance catalog, descriptions that read like they were written by members of an ecstatic cult. This continues when the festival’s programmers introduce the films with yet more sweeping praise. It might have been excusable in the early days, but today it makes the festival sound like an overprotective parent whose nurturing threatens to become suffocating.

In addition, this attitude creates unreasonably high expectations for films, making us look for masterpieces in what are after all only the works of beginners.

While the competition documentaries tend to be completely realized, the dramas are often promising at best, first steps by writers and directors who will undoubtedly do better work. And that’s the way they should be treated.

Yet to modify these Sundance tendencies would be no more than cosmetic. What I’d really like to put on the table for consideration is a radical restructuring: Make the American dramatic section noncompetitive.

Yes, the Grand Jury Prize does help the film that wins it, just like winning the lottery helps the one with the lucky ticket. But why should Sundance be promoting what is essentially a zero sum game, where the winners take all, leaving the losers to slink home with their memories? Why should the festival be sanctioning all or nothing competition among fledgling directors least likely to be tough enough to take it? Why not make the “it’s an honor to be nominated” cliche of these events into a reality?

If the argument is to be made that the competition element gets the media interested (though Toronto seems to do fine without it), why not go further and make the Premieres section the competitive one? Wouldn’t a contest among the leading lights of the independent world -- which this year included Gregg Araki, Rebecca Miller, Hal Hartley, Kevin Bacon, Don Roos and Thomas Vinterberg -- be more meaningful and make more sense than sending baby auteurs out to do battle with one another? And anyone who thinks these directors are too established to need the boost of a Sundance victory hasn’t been paying attention to the realities of the moviegoing world.

I am well aware that Sundance has grown so mighty on the notion of discovering talent that any deviation from the formula is almost inconceivable. And I’m not even positive that my ideas are all good ones. What I do feel sure of is that the festival’s treatment of its least experienced directors increasingly seems to be headed in an unpromising direction.

You don’t have to be a master gardener to know that it’s the delicate plants that are most in danger from over-watering.

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