Sundance's Geoff Gilmore is held accountable every year - not just for which films are chosen or dismissed, but for the state of US independent cinema itself. Now he's rumoured to be about the leave to join one of the majors. Is he selling out' Colin Brown reports.
From the moment the Sundance line-up is announced in early December until the final Grand Jury prize has been handed out eight weeks later, all eyes are on Geoff Gilmore. Since 1990, he has been the director of film programming for the totemic Park City, Utah festival, a post that essentially makes him one of the industry's chief gatekeepers for emerging talents with the apparent power to make or break dramatic and documentary film-making careers. Personally watching anywhere from 400-600 annually submitted films and overseeing a committee-led winnowing process that ends up selecting just 100 or so features, Gilmore is held accountable every year - not just for which films are chosen or dismissed, but for the state of US independent cinema itself.
It is a role that has won him ardent admirers for the way he has elevated the visibility of independent film to unparalleled levels as well as a few disgruntled voices still nursing bruised feelings over rejected films. "Geoff can be very opinionated and some movies that deserved to get in didn't because of his personal blind spot or his esoteric taste or borderline arrogance over what was good or bad cinema. It is a little too much of a God-like position, not a facilitator but someone passing judgement," said the head of one distribution outfit who, naturally, preferred anonymity. "The selection process needs to be extended. Toronto is effective at covering the available films. They have a better system of seeing the available product, the submissions and responding. Every film-maker who submits deserves to be seen and Sundance didn't see all the movies. That's a shortcoming. I'm not sure it is entirely his call, but it is on his watch."
This year, Gilmore will find himself the subject of even greater scrutiny. By programming several star-driven films with budgets looming beyond $20m, not to mention the first known special-effects film to appear in Dramatic Competition (Donnie Darko), Gilmore is laying himself open to the perennial charge that Sundance has lost sight of its guerrilla roots and now serves as little more than an early warning system for Hollywood talent scouts. In the process, they say, Gilmore has helped to wipe out underground cinema. Of course, the moment these same critics see a film-maker challenging mainstream conventions and pushing the boundaries of narrative cinema, they immediately slam the festival for being too unresponsive to the realities of the market. Every festival begins with even the most risk-taking of US distributors predicting slim pickings and ends up with several of the larger companies invariably bidding up the advances on a few unanticipated delights.
In the face of such uninvited pressures, Gilmore's repeated insistence on Sundance's mission as a "festival of discovery" is seen as all the more remarkable: "That Geoff has withheld the pressure to turn Sundance into a market is amazing," notes Good Machine International president David Linde. "The festival does an incredible job at being oriented at indigenous movies. No other festival like that has half the profile of Sundance. In spite of all the hype and craziness, Sundance is one of the best film festivals because it allows us insane buyer-types to co-exist with real film-makers and audiences. There are only four that do that - Cannes, Venice and Toronto are the others." On the other hand, that Sundance is now regularly mentioned in the same breath as these three events is seen as evidence of how Sundance has lost its identity for the sake of becoming a fully-fledged parade of world directors in search of global cachet.
All such comments have added piquancy this particular year. Since at least October, Gilmore has been linked to a job that would have him leave Sundance at this pivotal point in "Amer-indie" history and spearhead a new classics-style division for Warner Bros responsible for acquiring and releasing specialised films such as Australia's The Dish (a Warner domestic pick-up that appears in this year's line-up). Such a move from Sundance into the commercial domain is certainly not unprecedented. Gilmore's immediate predecessor, Tony Safford, went on to work for Miramax Films and 20th Century Fox; while one of Gilmore's programming colleagues of recent years, Rebecca Yeldham, has joined FilmFour, the UK studio that has started to collaborate with Warner.
But what makes Gilmore's acknowledged discussions with Warner Bros a particular talking point is that they involve a man whose experience is very much rooted in the not-for-profit sector. On the board of the Independent Feature Project/West and a consultant for innumerable organisations and committees, Gilmore is a philosophy student-turned-film academic who spent 14 years heading up the UCLA Film & Television Archive's programming. "In comparison to other heads of Sundance in years past, coming from the archives, he really cared about film. He has a strong sense of film history and a real sense of the festival's place as a centre of independent film. Sundance has progressed under him and it will be a difficult role for someone else to fill. It's very bureaucratic. It's like working for the government. Nothing is black or white and no one gives you a definitive answer. There are always compromises to make and that takes time and finesse and patience," commented another executive.
Not that Gilmore's departure is a done deal. He has gone on record to emphasise how happy he is at Sundance, while Warner Bros has suggested that plans for a classics division are not at the top of its priority list right now. Insiders have also revealed that Gilmore, who has no first-hand experience of marketing films, may have wanted to surround himself with a complement of seasoned executives, one or more of whom were then unavailable.
Should he stay for festivals beyond 2001, at least the industry can be reasonably assured of no preferential treatment accorded Warner Bros or any other prospective employer. "Gilmore cannot be bought," observed the head of a studio-owned specialised distributor that would have been his rival. "He is not someone who puts in a movie that doesn't fit. That is very important, because that maintains the integrity of the film festival." Less clear, however, is what direct effect Gilmore's continued presence at Sundance will exert over independent film-making. It can be argued that much of what has happened this past decade could have happened under any other regime, as a result of social forces that go beyond individual personality and cinematic sensibility.