Sundance Dispatch : Brian Hearn of OKCMoA

Brian Hearn, Oklahoma City Museum of Art film director, went to Sundance this year. Hit the jump below to read about his trials and tribulations in Park City.

The snow is falling here in Midway, Utah about 20 miles outside of Park City. The Sundance Film Festival begins today and we’re wrapping up the 3rd Annual Art House Convergence, a powwow of mission driven, community-based cinemas from around the U.S. I’m here representing the Oklahoma City Museum of Art Film Program (mission = enrich lives through the visual arts) and deadCENTER Film Festival (mission = promote independent film arts). There are 120+ cinephiles here discussing all aspects of programming and operating art house cinemas from projection to popcorn. This event is invaluable as we network and share insights into how to keep the doors open and butts in the seats. It’s tough out there competing against the “cine-mall” circuits like AMC, Regal, Cinemark, etc. These goliaths make our jobs more difficult by gobbling up the most profitable limited release films from distributors eager to access their thousands of screens. Meanwhile, the little guys, some non-profit, some for-profit, have to beg for the crumbs. As my comrade Clark Wiens from Tulsa’s Circle Cinema puts it, “they get the cream and we’re left with the milk.” By milk we mean films released by the distributors that may have audiences but they tend to be more challenging to market, don’t have stars, or are very narrow in their appeal. These may be quality films but it’s hard to make a living on them. Last year for example there was a clear division in our group between cinemas that could get a highly profitable art film (mmmm, cream), like “Slumdog Millionaire” and those that could not. We were in the latter group. With just a single screen at the Museum we don’t command the leverage that a 24 screen chain can. So we are who we are; we care about the films we show and we care about our audiences. We survive on loyalty and quality over quantity. Fortunately, the landscape of independent film is quickly changing. Hopefully, for the better.

John Cooper is the new Director of the Sundance Film Festival and the Director of Creative Development for the Sundance Institute. He’s also the godfather and benefactor of our Art House Convergence. This is the second year that he gave the opening night keynote address. Last year he memorably told us art house operators that “you don’t know how sexy you are!” This was surprising and even motivational for most of us as we are accustomed to suffering abuse from a-hole distributors as we try to build new audiences for independent film. This year with his new appointment after 20 years with Sundance (he started out as a volunteer), he shared some of the changes he’s brought to this year’s event. The changes reflect the tectonic shifts in the independent film world. The economic problems of the last couple of years have made film financing much harder for independents while many of the studio specialty film distributors have been shut down completely: Disney killed Miramax, Warner Bros. killed Warner Independent, Picturehouse, and gutted New Line, Paramount killed Paramount Vantage, and so on. With fewer buyers out there the chances of theatrical distribution for indie films is akin to a snowball’s chance in hell. But filmmakers are nothing if not a creative, resourceful bunch. Cooper talked about the innovative strategies filmmakers are taking to find audiences. For example three festival films at 2010 Sundance (“Bass Ackwards,” “Homewrecker,” “One Too Many Mornings”) will become immediately available on Youtube. The reality of this is that filmmakers lose the middleman and connect directly with audiences putting money back into their pocket. It might not be as much money as the infamous million dollar distribution deals of previous years but it’s fast and relatively inexpensive to release. One of John Cooper’s changes to the festival program is a new section called “Next,” devoted to low to no-budget films that embody the true spirit of indie filmmaking, creative risk taking. Another point he made was the increasing importance of keeping in touch directly with audiences through email, blogs, websites, social media, etc. This applies to filmmakers, festivals and art house cinemas. As he put it, “you are your list.” So it’s a brave new world in indie film, one in which the tools of communication have never been better, take advantage y’all.

One of the highlights of the Art House Convergence was the presence of enfant terrible documentary director Michael Moore. Did you know that he opened an art house cinema called the State Theatre in Traverse City, Michigan and started the Traverse City Film Festival?  He’s a hard-core cinephile to be sure and just as passionate and opinionated about other people’s films as he is in his own. I found him to be very accessible and surprisingly humble amidst the art house crowd. He gave the closing address over lunch and boy did he get us fired up. Apparently, hearing the many tales of frustration by art house cinemas simply trying to get product, including his most recent film “Capitalism: A Love Story,” opened his eyes to the exhibition side of the business. He seemed genuinely shocked and disgusted by how distributors routinely default to the chain theaters over independent cinemas. Furthermore, he is deeply committed to the theatrical experience. Movies are made to be seen on a big screen in a dark room with a community of people. Duh! But look at what’s happened just in the last few years; film content has become available on a dizzying array of platforms from iPods to smartphones to internet to VOD and so on. In a fit of humorous hyperbole he predicted we’d all have chips inserted in our thumbnails so we could watch “Avatar” on our thumbs! Gawd, let’s hope he’s wrong; I’m not ready to be a cyborg yet. In all seriousness he did state that he did not even want a DVD release for his next film, stubbornly insisting that it be seen in movie theaters, preferably an independent art house cinema. He talked about how his cinema in Traverse City has contributed to a genuine renaissance in their depressed community previously starved of the arts for generations. By the end of his rant the entire room was on its feet. I admire the guy for keepin’ it real and fighting the good fight for independent filmmakers and cinemas.

This year I had to dash home just as the festival was getting started but I managed to catch one truly great film. “Get Low” is the debut narrative feature by Aaron Schneider who left his mechanical engineering program at Iowa State to pursue filmmaking at USC. He worked as a DP on commercials, music videos and television. In 2003 he won the Oscar for best Narrative Short Film with “Two Soldiers.” “Get Low” stars Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek and Bill Murray. Seeing the weathered, etched lines in Duvall’s face as the crusty hermit character of Felix I am reminded of something Ingmar Bergman wrote more than 50 years ago, “Our work begins with the human face…the possibility of drawing near to the human face is the primary originality and the distinctive quality of the cinema.” Duvall’s Felix is a man of few words (he wheezes more than he speaks), alienated from his social community as an outcast but who reveals in his facial expressions, eyes and gestures a deep sympathy with nature, his old mule companion, and a long lost love. Immediately I felt compassion for this strange man while the plot of “Get Low” cleverly unfolds in reverse to show how he got there. Don’t be surprised to see Duvall in the thick of the Best Actor race for next year’s Oscars. He’s truly a master. “Get Low” is very well written with several gem-like lines that give the film a throbbing tender heart, a deep soul and a sense of wry humor. The cinematography, production and costume design of this 1930s rural setting are all aces. Can’t wait to screen this at the Museum! Aaron Schneider is a talent to watch.

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