Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Last Day Of The First Part Of Her Life

As this year's Sundance experience came to a close, I went along with my friends and colleagues Ilene Marder, Danielle DiGiacomo, Jordan Matthews and Dimitri to the NY Film Commission's annual condo party, celebrating all the NY filmmakers with films at Sundance. Its a fabulous party in a gigantic condo somewhere in the Canyons region outside of Park City. Surrounded by mountains, white snow and sparkling trees, adorned by golden christmas lights, the party quickly became very crowded as the never ending stream of filmmakers continued to arrive. While mini burgers were being passed around and business cards were being exchanged, I talked to many filmmakers and invited them all to submit to the Woodstock Film Festival and to shoot their next film in the Hudson Valley.

Hours later, as we gathered to leave outside by the entrance, I ran into our good friend Melissa Leo who arrived with a couple of young musicians from the Hudson Valley who now live in LA near her. Hugging there, we both knew that while Sundance for me came to a close, something new could be starting for her. It was Wednesday night, January 21, as we stood there hugging for a long time. The following morning the nominations for the Academy Awards were going to be announced at 6:30 AM Mountain Time. "I wanted to see you Meira" Melissa said as we stood there on the snow. "Tonight might be the last day of the first part of my life". As she said that, my heart stopped. "I'll call you and let you know if I got nominated" she said. "No way" I said. "You'll be much too busy. I'll try to call you. But whether I'm able to reach you or not, you will know that I, along with all your many friends back home, are enormously happy for you".

Getting up early Thursday morning before leaving for the Salt Lake City airport I packed everything fast, sat down, put on the TV and logged on to CNN online, waiting for the announcement.

And now I watched it. Melissa is one of the five actresses nominated for the 2009 Academy Award. This is huge, and indeed, the second part of her life has just begun. My huge congratulations!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tuesday morning started in Park City like everywhere else in the United States, with folks gathering in places, public or private, to watch the Inauguration. Ilene Marder and I were fortunate to be invited to the BMI condo by Woodstock Film Festival's friends Doreen Ringer Ross and Linda Livingston, so first thing in the morning we headed down to the Caledonian at the bottom of Main Street for an intimate viewing party. The BMI condo happens to be overlooking the public gathering on Main Street, where a giant screen and numerous flat screens were set up, broadcasting loud and clear the whole process to the delight of the hundreds who gathered there, young and old, Sundance participants and regular folks, all celebrating the momentous occasion together. The sun was shining and the air was filled with camaraderie and excitement. While keeping the doors open so we could get a sense of the crowd below, a group of us, including film producers, industry CEOs, composers and musicians all gathered together in the condo over a great breakfast, tears in many people's eyes, as we watched the historic inauguration. It was a memorable event, one that no one in the room will ever forget. My thanks to the wonderful folks at BMI for inviting us to join them.

Soon enough it was back to business as everyone dispersed to their respective screenings, meetings and events. After going to a press screening of Sin Nombre, I went to the highly anticipated sneak preview of Steven Soderbergh's new film, The Girlfriend Experience, at the Eccles. The place was buzzing with press members blogging on their iphones and blackberries as soon as the film was over and Soderbergh stepped on stage for Q&A, as everyone wanted to post their blogs ASAP... A few parties,including the always crowded Sundance Channel's event where Robert Redford made his annual appearance; the wonderful A&E gathering and the high octane, late night BritDocs party, as well as the always crowded Kodak Party, capped the day as our stay in Sundance, which started last Thursday the 15th, is quickly nearing its end.

What a week this has been.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Our Breakfast

My thanks go out to the wonderful folks at the NY State Film Commission, including Jerome Stoeffhaas and Pat Kaufman, for hosting our Breakfast today, and to our co-sponsor, 120db Films for helping make it all happen. Every time you host a reception at Sundance or at any other event this size, there is a lot of work that goes into its planning and production. Thankfully we had a few WFF's staff here, Ilene Marder, Jordan Matthews and Daniel Blaustein Rejto who were here to help with the pre production and on site, and that certainly made it all much easier.  Add to that my former assistant and Sundance current Volunteer Coordinator Rachel Katz who was on hand, helping when needed, and the event went off without a hitch.

It was great to see so many WFF's alumni at the reception, as well as industry folks whom I've never met before.  Some of the guests included David  Dinerstein from Lakeshore Entertainment in LA; actress Melissa Leo; director Tze Chun and director Larry Fessenden; documentary filmmakers Barbara Kopple, Hart and Dana Perry,  Sarah and Emily Kuntsler;   Participants Media's Bryan Stamp; SXSW's Janet Pierson; Cinetic's Matt Dentler; entertainment attorney / producer Jonathan Gray and his partners, and entertainment attorney / producer Steven Beer; producers Amy Hobby and Anne Hubbell, and many more. It was quite wonderful and my feeling is that we'll do it again next year.

Its Monday morning. In less than two hours the Woodstock Film Festival & Hudson Valley Film Commission are about to host our Breakfast at the NY Lounge. We received so many RSVP, I hope it won't end up being too crowded as I' like people to be able to talk to each other at ease. We'll see.

Yesterday was a another long day in Park City.  After walking out on a film at a Press & Industry screening (I'd rather not give away the title but it was pretty much unwatchable), I ended up seeing a few good films throughout the day, making the memory of the early film nothing but a bad dream...). One of the highlights was Peter Callahan's narrative film Against the Current, which was shot on the Hudson River, with locations including Beacon and other beautiful spots along the river. With terrific performances by Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk and Elizabeth Reaser, along with a hilarious scene with Mary Tyler Moore, the film played an ode to the Hudson in a way that I've never quite seen before. I would love to show it at the festival along with cast and crew.

Another very touching film was Tze Chun's premiere screening of his feature directorial debut Children of Invention. Such a beautiful film, with amazing performances by the two child stars, one age 8, other age 11, who drew laughter, tears and warm applause from the sold out house. Our personnel director, Lisa Myers, who was sitting next to me, was very moved by the story and wiped a few tears herself at the end (as did I...). During the Q&A I was watching Tze in amazement as he conducted the lengthy Q&A with confidence, dignity, kindness and intelligence well beyond his young years.  I hope very much that the film will sell soon and many will get to see it and I look forward to Tze's next project.

Later on at the fabulous HBO dinner party I was talking to some old friends about football (yes, me...good thing the conversation quickly shifted to something else or I would have exhibited my football ignorance soon enough...), the upcoming inauguration, and of course, the movies we've all seen. It was nice to see that I was not the only one who shared the positive sentiments about the films mentioned above.  Talking to Rick Allen, CEO of Snag Films, along with his staff member Andrew Mer and his executive vice president Stephanie Sharis, we  discussed the growing trend of online distribution, the movies we've seen so far and our thoughts on the future of indie film.  I was thrilled to see people like Nancy Abraham, vice president of documentary programming for HBO, Michael Maggiore of Film Forum, and many others who I have not seen for a couple of years.  It was nice to engage in conversations again and, of course, invite them all to come back to the Woodstock Film Festival this fall.  They are all invited to our breakfast this morning of course. Which reminds me.  Gotta run and get to the NY Film  Lounge now to prepare for our Breakfast gathering.  Until next time then. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The movies

I heard that Lee Daniels’ dramatic narrative film in competition, Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire, was greeted by standing ovation at the Premiere last night, and so I caught it this morning at the Press & Industry screening. Indeed I understand why the audience loved it. What a film, absolutely amazing. Very strong, Serious, so unique and from the heart. With Mo’Nique, Mariah Care and Lenny Kravitz in key roles, and with a story that comes straight from the dark and harrowing depth of Harlem, this movie is disturbing and amazing at the same time. Frankly, I was pretty much blown away. I highly recommend it. Funny, walking in I was told by one close industry colleague that I wont like the film, warning me of extreme violence, and so I selected a seat at the aisle, in case I wanted to leave after the first 10 minutes. But nothing was further from the truth. Go figure. WFF's long time friend John Sloss and his sales company Cinetic is repping the film. My feeling is that they will sell it shortly.

A few hours later I went along with my son Daniel and his friend Jordan Matthew to the premiere screening of Davis Guggenheim's It Might Get Loud. I remember a couple of years ago sitting at the same theater in Sundance, watching for the first time along with everyone at the theater the world premiere of Guggenheim's An Inconvenience Truth. It was an unforgettable experience then, complete with Al Gore's appearance at the end for Q&A which drew a huge standing ovation. Fast forward a couple of years later, and here was Guggenheim with this high octane, unique, fabulous music documentary, featuring Jack White (White Stripes, The Raconteurs), Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) and The Edge (U2). Following Guggenheim's opening remarks acknowledging this repeat experience here in Sundance, and following the standing ovation at the end of the film, Guggenheim brought Jack White to the front for Q&A, and the cameras began to click away by the many admirers in the room. I'm glad my son got to meet Guggenheim, inviting him to HIS film festival (not the Woodstock festival) at Brown, as Guggenheim is a Brown alum. I hope for his sake that it will work for him. Sony Picture Classing are releasing the film theatrically in the summer, and so everyone should be able to see it then.

Gotta go back to Main Street (oh God, its so crowded now, shuttle ride can take close to an hour, not fun...) for a couple of parties. Until next time.

Friday, January 16, 2009

End of a Day

What a difference a day makes. While Thursday was relatively calm and empty, Friday was crowded, full of activities and hustle and bustle everywhere. Although the big buzz is that attendance is low this year due to the economy, walking on Main Street, sparkling with lights and floating with many sounds of music, tonight felt just as busy and wild as in years past. While during the day everyone was attending movies, panels, meetings and other networking opportunities, the evening brought with it endless parties with crowds spilling onto the streets left and right. What a scene.

But I'm regressing. Let me go back to the day. After talking to some press and industry members at headquarters this morning I headed out to Main Street and the NY Lounge to meet with Josh Zeman (Against the Current) and discuss showing the film in the Hudson Valley. As we were talking a panel featuring SAG Indie, an organization I have been hoping to bring on board the festival for years, was going on. I was glad I was able to talk to SAG Indie's rep following what was an excellent panel, as it will be great to bring them to the festival for our 10th Anniversary this fall. While we began discussing that at the Lounge, this is definitely something to follow up on once I get back home.

Later on, waiting on line for the premiere of Humpday, starring one of our favorite actors / directors Mark Duplass, a group of us was discussing the changing conditions of independent film distribution and the ever changing paths indie filmmakers can take these days. I was interested in what Karina Longworth, a respected blogger from Spout and a great writer, had to say, as she was describing the book she was working on, following the journey of a few select indie filmmakers at film festival's throughout the country during the course of one year. Sounds like a great project.

At the Eccles, laughter and discomfort ensued during Humpday, an improvisational comedy sets to challenge the norms, as hilarious situations between two straight young men, old college friends, who decide upon their reunion to have sex with each other in a low budget porno in the name of art, unfold in a series of twists and turns. The film received warm response from audience and some potential buyers, we'll see where it ends up and if it gets snatched here in Sundance, or later on.

As the sun went down and parties began to fill up Main Street, a group of us went to the IFP & Filmmaker Magazine reception, where you could see producers, directors, sales agents, press and buyers discussing, what else, but the situation of indie films today...It was a very nice party, though incredibly crowded. But not as crowded as the Gen Art party that followed. That one became rather crazy soon after we arrived. Stepping out onto the balcony to get some air and get a birds eye view of beautiful Main Street, filled with party tents, christmas lights, limos and people milling about everywhere, we ended up having a fun conversation with folks from LA who do special events for Sundance, the Oscars etc. To our surprise they were very familiar with Woodstock and knew exactly where our WFF's office was. They actually drove by it not too long ago... Small world. We'll see, perhaps they will put together a great event at our upcoming festival this fall.

After talking to more filmmakers, including Hudson Valley resident Robert Stone whose film Earth Days is closing Sundance later on, and who told me that this film is his "Citizen Kane" (!), meaning his masterpiece (can't wait to see it!), it was time to bid Main Street good night. Saturday is bound to be much busier day. Must get some sleep.

Day Two in Park City

Its Friday morning. Everyone is still asleep at my condo, but with 30 minutes to go before I have to go to Sundance's headquarters to pick up a couple of complimentary press tickets and have a meeting with one of our programmers, I need to take the time now and figure out my schedule for today. Press and industry screenings. Public screening. Meetings, and parties. Should be a very full day.

Yesterday, upon our arrival we were struck by the lack of snow on the roads and pathways, I think it may be my first time in Sundance without having to slush through the snow everywhere, its amazing. During the day the weather was beautiful, the sky was perfectly blue, the sun was shining and the temperature could have been up to 40. However, as the afternoon wore off and the evening began, that has changed, and by the time we were out on main street having dinner, it was freeeeeeezing....So lesson number one for today - wear long johns!

Amazing how many people you run into on the first day of arrival here. Its good to arrive on Thursday, the day of the Opening Night Film, as town is not nearly as packed yet. You can actually walk around without pushing your way through the crowds, see familiar faces and stop and say hi, give a hug, wish people luck. Going to headquarters yesterday I saw so many of the filmmakers we're supporting this year. Tze Chun (Children of Invention) , Jeff Lipsky (Once More With Feeling), Josh Zeman (Against the Current), Molly Thompson (The September Issue)... as well as our IFP friends Michelle Byrd, Amy Dotson and Milton Tabbot, our Indiepix friend Danielle DiGiacomo, specialty distributor Orly Ravid, film sales rep extraordinaire Josh Braun... and many more. Everyone was just gathering their thoughts and making their plans, excited to be in Park City again and looking forward to a rewarding experience.

After checking in at the NY Lounge to touch base with NY State Commissioner Pat Kaufamn regarding our Breakfast Party there on Monday the 19th, saying hi to my beautiful former assistant and this year's Sundance's Volunteer Coordinator Rachel Katz, we headed back to Main Street (it was cold then) for a quick bite, and then off to Opening Night Film at the Eccles.

Running into our friend Bill Plympton, one of America's best animators, he quickly made a fantastic flyer for our Breakfast Party, signed and gave it to me to copy and distribute (thanks Bill!), which was great. People actually stopped and looked to see what he was doing...

Then, the movie. Max and Mary. An Australian animation, which was a first for Sundance as an opening night film. And you know what, it was great. Five years in the making, all hand animation (not one single computer generated frame, as the filmmaker stressed in his opening remarks). Funny, heart warming, and moving, this was an opening night film unlike any other. The film does not have US distribution yet, hopefully it will get it here.

Well, must leave now for a very full day. See you later at the movies!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting Ready for Sundance 09

Oh boy, it's Tuesday. Two days before Sundance. I think I'm ready, but of course, there is still so much to do, and work for the Woodstock Film Festival and the Hudson Valley Film Commission is never ending.

Big films are scouting for locations in the area now, which is very exciting. We hope some will work out as it will be great for the local economy. Crossing my fingers. Can't release the names of the stars, but believe me, they are big.

And work for the festival is mounting. With deadlines for grant applications drawing near, talks with potential sponsors are ongoing, and programming for Year Round Screenings, special events, and the festival itself is starting to pick up. It's all very exciting, but also requires a lot of work. Lets hope that '09, which will be our TENTH anniversary will indeed be our best. I have high hopes.

In the meantime, Sundance is celebrating its TWENTY FIFTH anniversary this year. The program looks good. The parties look fabulous. I have good meetings lined up. Plenty of people traveling with me who will represent us. Should be good.

I see that some of the films in Sundance have already been bought by distributors, some of which are brand new companies, for who these Sundance acquisitions are the first in their slate. Does that mean that this year will be a good one for buyers? Will many films find a home because of Sundance? It's possible, as the preliminary numbers indicate, but its still too soon to know. I know that many filmmakers are already working on their plan B - a DIY (Do it Yourself) distribution plan - in case their films won't get picked up (and more often than not, that is the case).

Curious if there will be a runaway hit this year in the same vein as Little Miss Sunshine a few years ago. There is some growing buzz on some of the films already, can't wait to see them.

It's a different year this one. With the economy the way it is (many people who are watching their spending are opting to go to the Berlin Film Festival instead of Sundance, or just skipping the upcoming big film festivals all together...) and with the inauguration thats pulling quite a few people to DC instead of Sundance (for instance, Ted Sarandos, CEO of Netflix and the recipient of Woodstock's honorary Trailblazer Award in 07 will be in Washington this year instead of Park City, alas), some of the people I'm used to seeing out there won't be there this year. Perhaps that means that a whole new crop of industry folks will be there in their stead! We'll see.

I'm getting excited. Leaving Thursday at 3 AM, and the trip officially start once you get to the airport, as many New York industry members traditionally takes the same flight that I do. I look forward to it.

Until then.