What Future for Sundance?

The door to reinvention is open at Sundance after years of creeping bloat and commercialization.

Last Updated: February 20, 2009 @ 4:04 PM

The biggest job in independent film became available on Tuesday, when Geoff Gilmore, the director of the Sundance Film Festival for the last 19 years, took a job as the chief creative officer with Tribeca Enterprises in New York.

Gilmore’s desire to leave Sundance for different (or at least more lucrative) pastures has been rumored for years in the independent film community. But as the indie world has contracted, job options have diminished too.

Nonetheless, the move does mean the independent film world is undergoing some churn, just four days before the Spirit Awards celebrate the best in low-budget filmmaking.

For one thing, Tribeca’s hiring of Gilmore is a shot across the bow of the New York Film Festival, which has been a rival of the Tribeca Film Festival since it was launched by Jane Rosenthal and Robert de Niro in 2002.

And Gilmore’s departure presents an opportunity for Robert Redford, the moving spirit behind Sundance, to reinvent what has become the most important festival in the independent film world. Despite its stature, or because of it, Sundance has by now outgrown its indie roots; for too long it has been overshadowed by commercialism.

After years of explosive growth, ensuring the festival’s financial stability in these leaner times may also be a challenge. "The bigger question is the fate and direction and finances of the festival," said Tony Safford, Senior Vice President of Acquisitions for Fox Searchlight. "Sundance has become its antithesis. What was once a small, filmmaker-friendly event is now an expensive behemoth. This economy can’t support that infrastructure."
 
In his new position – the first of its kind at Tribeca – Gilmore will be working to help expand the Tribeca brand by focusing on content strategy, as well as the first annual Tribeca Film Festival Doha, which will be held in Qatar in November.

In the past, the Tribeca festival has struggled to compete with the Cannes Film Festival because their calendar dates overlap.

"People always give a pat answer and say that the films are not quite up to par at Tribeca, but there have been a lot of films that have been great and people haven’t gone three subway stops to go see them," said Jeff Dowd, a producer who has helped to finance and distribute a number of independent films, including "Kissing Jessica Stein."

As was evident in Park City this year, Sundance has already been struggling to redefine itself for a different era. Under a new leader, a different festival might emerge.

Still, Sundance reps denied that his move would shake things up or introduce a re-upped competition with Tribeca.
 
"We’re just simply not in competition with Tribeca," said Brooks Addicott, the spokeswoman for the Sundance Film Festival. "Geoff was the iconic face out front, but he was a part of a really strong team, so it’s not like we’re scrambling to find an interim director or promote anybody. There’s no craziness."

Indie world insiders said that chief programmer John Cooper was the most likely figure to step into Gilmore’s shoes. (See related.)

From the key players, there were official statements, but otherwise — silence.

In a press release, Redford said he was delighted to see his lieutenant move on, praising Gilmore’s "total commitment to independent film. … I support completely his decision. The timing is right."
 
In fact, Sundance faces a world of hurt: declining sponsorships, bankrupt indie film companies, and a bloated festival that is now as noteworthy for its swag suites as it is for the films that emerge there and go on to shake up American culture.

And while there were a lot of movie sales at Sundance this year, there were none of the big-ticket sales of years past. Lionsgate’s $5 million purchase of "Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire" was the closest to a blockbuster sale the festival saw this year. That came just a year after Focus Features spent $10 million at the 2008 fest on "Hamlet 2," only to later watch it tank at the box office.

Even Gilmore told TheWrap last month that he wondered about the future of indie filmmaking in an Internet-obsessed age: "I’m not sure [young filmmakers] have as much interest in [independent film] as filmmakers of 20 years ago. They might just be interested in a lot of other things: technology, different kinds of forms, which aren’t what we looked at 30 years ago."

In the industry, the consensus was that however Gilmore changes Tribeca, his efforts will better the organization.

"He was such a Sundance institution because he found a lot of exciting new filmmakers and had good taste," said Mark Pogachefsky, the co-president of public relations firm mPRm. "Geoff will bring something new to Tribeca because he’s a major player. Wherever he goes, he has an influence."