Our final film of the 2014 fest was a highly anticipated doc, "Happy Valley" by Amir Bar-Lev ("My Kid Could Paint That" and "The Pat Tillman Story"). This doc was about the Penn St. child abuse nightmare perpetrated by Penn St. football coaching assistant Jerry Sandusky while higher ups turned a blind eye.
Unfortunately, this doc suffers the same problem as Bar-Lev's "Pat Tillman Story" in that there are still too many sealed documents and upcoming trials (the Penn St. higher ups go on trial this Spring) for there to be any real investigation to pursue. Frankly the damning Sports Illustrated article has more detail then is shown here. It's all surface and superficial, with nothing new uncovered or fresh perspectives gathered from key witnesses. He has a Penn St. dorm kid who comes off...well...like typical dorm kid. He has Joe Paterno's sons and widow who all say the same thing ("We had no idea", how could they have treated my dad/husband like that?"). He has an interview with a Penn St. film professor for no reason whatsoever.
In fact, the only mildly intriguing subject he nabbed was one of Sandusky's adopted sons. Matt Sandusky comes off sincere and surprisingly upbeat considering his harsh childhood and abuse from Jerry. He originally said to investigators that nothing had ever happened to him, but then recanted once the jury went into delibertations and even offered to testify against his adopted father. That story, if developed, could have been a much stronger lynchpin for detailing the Penn St. events than the dull Joe Paterno reputation rehab attempted here. It's another missed opportunity for Bar-Lev to take an amazing story and just play it totally safe so as not to piss off his bosses or bring some heat on himself. I liked Bar-Lev much better when he wasn't a "name" doc director and instead took some real risks like his superb doc, "My Kid Could Paint That".
So, as my Sundance 2014 experience comes to a close here at the Salt Lake City airport, I'll list the upsides and downsides to the fest. I'll start with the downsides (which aren't really downsides in the big scheme of things) so I can end on a positive note with the upsides.
1. Crowds - If you decide to come to Sundance, prepare for crowds. Everywhere. From parking to just walking down Main St. in Park City, you'll feel like cattle. It's tough to get into restaurants and every screening I went to was totally sold out. I lucked out with my "waitlisting" but I would work hard to get actual tickets beforehand even though they are scarce.
2. Costs - It isn't over the top, but screenings are $20, parking is (usually) $20 and the local restaurants are a gouge ($15 for a burger and it just goes from there) but of good quality.
3. Weather - I had basically perfect weather for Park City in January and I was still cold most of the time. It was clear and sunny but highs were about 38-40 degrees in the sun, then would dip down into the 18-20 degree range at night. The roads were clear and ice-free. Many years here it's snowing - I wouldn't want to negotiate the film festival with icy roads and blizzards.
4. Parking - This is just a slight nitpick on my part but one issue is that the theatres here at Sundance are all spread out and parking at them is limited to staff and VIP's. You can't walk from theatre to theatre since some are in Park City, some in Salt Lake City and some are even in Ogden. It's shuttle busses all the way and even though they are free, it does take some time to get from one theatre to another.
1. The Films - Every film I saw was pretty amazing. This fest attracts the cream of the filmmaking crop and it shows. No matter what film you see, I'd say you have a 90% chance of being fascinated by it.
2. The Crowds - I am not repeating myself here. The crowds at Sundance are so respectful. When the movie starts, not one cell phone comes out, no one gets up out of their seat and no one says a word. Restores your faith in going out to the movies again. I also had many conversations about current Diamond in the Rough Films projects with strangers in various lines and they all seemed very interested in what I was working on - cards were handed out and web site urls punched into smart phones. If you're an indie filmmaker, just attending this festival can increase your networking opportunities by ten fold.
3. The Volunteers - Sundance is a well-oiled machine. They have this figured out perfectly and it all works because of the volunteers. They are visible, plentiful, helpful and totally likable.
4. Park City - Yes, it's touristy and slightly over-priced but the main drag is just so darn charming and pretty up against that dramatic mountain range that you can't help but get swept away by it all.
5. The Vibe - The atmosphere is just buzzing with excitement at all times. And it's a real and genuine excitement from joy. The joy of seeing a great movie well before the general public, the joy of a filmmaker getting a major stage to screen their work...it's thick in the air here and it's wonderful.
6. Getting to see "Boyhood" on the big screen with 1,245 people - Enough said.
As I bid Sundance 2014 goodbye (but NOT farewell), I do have one final observation. This is NOT an "independent" film festival. Not really. These are well-financed productions - hell two documentaries I saw were produced by CNN for heaven's sake - not the "let's max out the credit cards and make a movie with our friends" kind of film fest. The feature films have recognizable actors or at least very high production values. The feature docs even have big name "star subjects" (i.e. Roger Ebert, George Takei, The Penn State scandal).
Maybe some of the short films/short docs still have the true "indie spirit" - I didn't get to see them - but for the most part, entering your indie feature film that you shot for $20K on weekends for a year with your friends, or that feature doc you put together about your amazing grandmother who no one has heard of outside your family, is not even close to playing in this pond. This is big-time Hollywood in the mountains - not scrappy indie filmmakers trying to get discovered.
But, to end on a positive note, this experience has inspired me to do even better work, to improve my production values, to take MUCH bigger risks with our films and to not compromise on quality to the best of my limited resources. I can't wait to jump into the next film adventure.