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Park City Heat

The 2013 Sundance Film Festival (Jan 17-27) boasts a rich mix of US and international projects. Screen speaks to the festival’s organisers about the ‘immediacy and fearlessness’ in this year’s programme.

“From our rarified perch of looking at these films, in general I would say independent film is thriving,” posits Sundance festival director John Cooper. And it would take a brave person to contradict him, given how Sundance has re-established itself in recent years as a cinematic taste-maker.

One need only cast an eye at awards season hopefuls such as Beasts Of The Southern Wild, The Sessions and Arbitrage or consider the latter’s promising digital distribution performance alongside Bachelorette to understand Park City has a habit of setting the tone of the conversation for the rest of the year.

The 2013 selection sees a rich mix of returning film-makers including Cherien Dabis (May In The Summer), Drake Doremus (Breathe In) and Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely), international talents such as Park Chan-wook (with his English-language debut Stoker) and Sebastian Silva (Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic) and a star roster of Nicole Kidman (Stoker), Ashton Kutcher (closing night film jOBS), Shia LaBeouf (The Necessary Death Of Charlie Countryman), Steve Carell (The Way, Way Back) and Steve Coogan (The Look Of Love).

“We are seeing returning film-makers who are sustaining themselves and continuing to work in the independent film vein; actors who continue to support independent film by being in these films and taking risks,” says Cooper. “What we noticed first and foremost is there’s a particular immediacy and fearlessness; a head-on push to deliver stories that are personal and brave. There’s a great potential for the films across all the programmes to reach an audience, so that’s good news.” Director of programming Trevor Groth adds: “One thing we’re happy with is how the individual sections shaped up this year. It’s been an ongoing process of fine-tuning which film works in each section.

“This year I feel completely satisfied with how each piece fell into place. Last year we noticed Premieres looked similar to the US Dramatic Competition - everything was for sale and there were a lot of first-time directors apart from Spike Lee and Stephen Frears.

“This year we set out to programme films with a little more high-power directors but without sacrificing quality, so we’ve got the likes of Jane Campion, Richard Linklater and Park Chan-wook.” Groth describes the US Dramatic Competition as being “as strong as it has ever been” and notes the NEXT section has expanded to 10 films. “That section is becoming something that has a really strong voice - bold visions made by very distinctive film-makers and there’s an attitude that comes with these films in the section.” Then there are the documentaries. Sundance is regarded by many in the industry as an unparalleled non-fiction platform in North America. The line-up includes new work from Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story Of Wiki-Leaks), UK Oscar nominee Lucy Walker (The Crash Reel), Sebastian Junger (Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington) and first-timer Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Nirvana fame (Sound City).

Cooper has this to say of the selection process: “It is intense - hard work and good work at the same time. There’s so much that’s good there and the passion behind documentaries is something you can feel. We’re very drawn to contemporary politics and stories that explain and expose issues of our times. There seems to be a lot of interest in economic inequality and corporate corruption and information sharing.” The year-round programming effort has been made a touch easier by a growing awareness of how a festival like Sundance can help a film’s life.

“Most film-makers are aware of this and we are starting to talk to them earlier in the year,” says Cooper.

The pair exhibit their customary diplomacy when addressing the horse trading that goes on every year behind the scenes - typically in luxury condos rented by financiers or in the restaurants and bars of Main Street.

Each year movies arrive saddled with expectation. Some prosper; others fall by the wayside. Cooper and Groth prefer to let the dice fall where they may.

“I think [the marketplace] has stabilised in a really healthy way,” Groth says. “Even if you don’t have those huge sales that were exciting to talk about, most films are selling in a way that’s sustainable for everyone.

“The theatrical success of Beasts Of The Southern Wild and The Sessions - neither of which was an obvious commercial film - will open up the eyes and minds of buyers this year. The success of Bachelorette and Arbitrage on VoD creates many opportunities in that space.”

The top brass are also looking forward to returning to the O2 Arena for the second Sundance London (April 25-28). “We were there every day with the audience and it was great because we got to see what they were responding to,” says Cooper. “Now we’re asking ourselves how we can perfect things.”

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