At this very moment they're ascending the frostbitten peaks of Park City, Utah: filmmakers and film-breakers, which is to say, in the latter case, movie execs and film critics who will decide what's hot after spending a week in the bitter cold. Among those making the long trek to the Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday and runs till January 28, are the familiar boldfaced names. Those expected to ski Sundance this year: George Clooney, John Cusack, Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning (pitching a movie, Hounddog, in which the famous pre-teen actress is raped), Kate Beckinsale and Philip Seymour Hoffman. They're the new faces of "independent cinema," which is to say, the same ol' faces working on art-house product.
But there are the unknowns too—the would-bes who wait every year for The Call from Sundance bossman Geoffrey Gilmore or one of his underlings who extend the invite to The Only Film Festival That Matters. (Well, it used to be, anyway.) They're the next big things who start microscopically small, who spend their life's savings making heartfelt films they hope don't wind up as expensive home movies for proud papas and mamas who then turn around and tell Junior to get a real job. But it happens all the time.
Two of the last three years, Dallas was well-repped by comers who arrived in Utah as hopeful newbies and came back snow-burned vets. In 2004, Shane Carruth, a software engineer, took to Sundance his deadpan, what-the-fuck time-travelogue Primer, which cost him $40,000 to make and transfer from 16mm to 35mm—a pittance to some, an empty bank account and credit card-breaker to most. He returned from Sundance with the fest's most prestigious award, the Grand Jury Drama Prize, the same one given in previous years to the likes of American Splendor, You Can Count on Me, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Blood Simple. Not even Steven Soderbergh's debut sex, lies and videotape—the film that more or less put the fest on the general public's map—received such an honor.
Then, last year, Michael Cain, founder of the Deep Ellum Film Festival, brought his unrelenting, unforgiving, years-in-the-making documentary TV Junkie to Sundance. Cain, who's responsible for bringing the AFI International Film Festival to Dallas beginning this March, assembled the movie with co-director Matt Radecki using thousands of audio and video recordings made by former TV newsman Rick Kirkham, who chronicled the dissolution of his family because of his addiction to drugs and booze. Like Primer, TV Junkie was also feted at the fest: It received a Special Jury Prize and was nominated for the Grand Jury Documentary Prize.
But Carruth and Cain both know too well that being a favorite in the thin air doesn't mean much once you come down to earth. Indeed, even after being referred to in Entertainment Weekly last year as "a mesmerizing documentary trip to hell," only now is TV Junkie getting a release, and it will be on HBO on March 16 as part of the cable channel's semi-regular "Faces of Addiction" series. While that's probably better than a theatrical release—after all, millions watch HBO, where a doc released to theaters is more likely to get a few thousand pairs of eyeballs—it's still been a struggle, Cain says, despite the Utah huzzahs.
"Sundance is something you build up as being so big: 'We're at Sundance. That's it. We're a household name. This is gonna change everything,'" Cain says. "And then you realize, no, unless you're one of, like, 15 movies out of that whole experience, you're gonna be one who continues working on the movie, selling the movie, getting it in other festivals. You still have all these other things to deal with. The hard work starts after Sundance."
Cain says there was talk last year of getting theatrical distribution through Picturehouse, the HBO-New Line Cinema joint venture headed up by former Inwood Theater honcho Bob Berney. But in the end, he says, HBO made a "more generous offer" that also included editing the film into a classroom-friendly DVD that could be used to educate students about the perils of addiction. Indeed, the film will be screened in Albuquerque at the end of March at a National Youth Leadership Council conference, which some 3,000 high-school-age kids are expected to attend.
"But one of the nicest things that came out of Sundance was as soon as I got back, it was like, 'OK, you have a month to get ready to lock down the AFI deal,'" Cain says. "The nice thing that came from the heat of the awards was that a lot of people were like, 'OK, so the AFI deal is suddenly more valid, because Michael's an award-winning Sundance filmmaker, so that means this festival's artistic vision will be solid.' And it was a nice reward for the Deep Ellum team. I've loaned around the award to members of our team, so everyone gets to have it at their place."
Cain says he called Carruth before he left last year; he wanted to know who the Primer filmmaker had used as his publicist and agent and sales rep. Carruth gave him a list—and a whole lot of advice that would serve anyone who thinks success is a slam-dunk.
After all, it wasn't till weeks after Sundance 2004 that Carruth found distribution for Primer: ThinkFILM, which last year picked up fest fave Half Nelson. Despite raves from the likes of Esquire, which compared it to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Primer wound up pocketing less than half a million when it was finally released in the fall of 2004. That was nothing to be ashamed of, especially given Primer's catering-truck budget; it even made enough to allow Carruth to take a few years to write his next feature, which he's still doing at this very moment. But Carruth is still stuck in the Hollywood Phantom Zone, a fate that eluded previous Grand Jury Prize winners such as Bryan Singer, Joel and Ethan Coen, and Ed Burns.
"I am still feeling incredibly fortunate it all happened," Carruth says. "But I don't know how or if I am going to wind up taking advantage of it, I guess. When something like that happens, filmmakers have a chance to go on to the next big thing or become a hired gun, and I am well aware whatever I am it's a choice I made, and it could go another way."
He's trying to finish writing his second film; every few months, Carruth thinks he's done with it, then realizes it needs more work...and more work...and more work still. He says he's become friends with Soderbergh, who's encouraged the young filmmaker to keep at it; Soderbergh even invited Carruth to the set of Ocean's Thirteen a few days ago, Carruth says, "to see what a real movie looks like." He laughs.
Carruth says he has accepted only one directing job, on an anthology television series featuring famous science-fiction story adaptations. But he passed, ultimately, when the creators kept insisting he turn the main characters of Fritz Leiber's 1953 story "A Pail of Air," about survivors trapped on a dying earth, into zombies and vampires.
"Whatever my name might have meant after Sundance, it means far less now," Carruth says. "It's capital I didn't waste necessarily, but I also didn't use it. Am I starting out like I was four years ago? I didn't think there was another way to do. I just don't work well in any other kind of situation." He swears he'll get that second movie written soon. Then, ya know, he'll shoot the damned thing.
"Then again," he says with a chuckle, "I might be doing software again."
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.