Our Man at Sundance

By staff April 1, 2007

When the Sarasota Film Festival opens on April 13, executive director Jody Kielbasa will have a lot on his mind. Will the audience love the opening-night movie? Are the visiting Hollywood stars happy withter their accommodations? Will the corporate sponsors whine about their table locations at the parties?

But there’s one thing Kielbasa won’t have to worry about: slipping on slushy snow and bumping into a metal barricade, as he did one night in January at the chilly Sundance Film Festival in Utah. That stumble on Park City’s Historic Main Street was about the only misstep made by the fast-moving Kielbasa during a week at America’s most prestigious film festival.

He and several other staff members went to Sundance in part to scout for features and documentaries that they could present in Sarasota. But because Sundance is the film industry’s version of a political convention (with some Super Bowl-style hype thrown in), Kielbasa also spent time networking, schmoozing and spreading the word about the Sarasota festival. At film screenings, lunches and late-night parties with techno music pulsating, Kielbasa chatted with actors, producers, publicists and distributors. One night, he even cornered powerful studio head Harvey Weinstein, who left the encounter with a Sarasota Film Festival postcard in his pocket.

I spent the week shadowing Kielbasa and his colleagues, wearing my borrowed ski parka, gloves and hiking boots, which never seemed to ward off temperatures that dropped to the single digits at times. Here is my Sundance diary.

Thursday, Jan. 18

Because of an ice storm in Atlanta (a harrowing experience for a nervous flier like me), I arrive in Salt Lake City mid-afternoon, nearly three hours late. It’s a half-hour ride into the Wasatch Mountains to Park City, a former silver-mining town and now a popular ski resort with a permanent population of 7,000.

During the 10-day festival, the streets are a lot more crowded than the slopes. More than 50,000 people, including 1,000 journalists from around the world, will attend Sundance screenings.

All 1,000 reporters seem to be in front of me in the slow-moving line for press credentials at festival headquarters. But I get my badge in time to hear Sundance founder and president Robert Redford introduce the opening-night film, the documentary Chicago 10.

The movie deals with the Vietnam War protesters who were prosecuted for leading a massive anti-war rally in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention. Debuting only a week after President Bush announced a "surge" of American forces in Iraq, the documentary couldn’t be more current.

"This film is about another time when young people raised their voices in protest of what they felt was wrong and put themselves in harm’s way," Redford says from the stage of the 1,270-seat Eccles Theatre, a high-school auditorium that’s one of eight venues for Sundance films.

Friday, Jan. 19

It’s 7 degrees as I wait for a shuttle bus to take me to a press/industry screening at 8:30 a.m. I catch the bus near the townhouse where I’m staying on the outskirts of Park City. It belongs to some friends who, wisely, are in their winter home in Naples this time of year. I’m fortunate that they invited me to stay in their comfortable Park City home, because hotel rooms must be booked a year in advance at festival time. Rooms start at $300 a night and escalate to $700 a night at the posh Stein Erickson Lodge.

At 11 a.m., I join Kielbasa at a screening of Away From Her, a poignant film that stars Julie Christie as a woman struggling with the onset of dementia. The film has already been booked for the Sarasota festival, but Kielbasa hasn’t seen it yet. We are both moved by this understated work and agree that it should resonate with Sarasota audiences.

Kielbasa and I head for lunch on Historic Main Street, a six-block long stretch of colorful 19th-century buildings that have been converted into restaurants, cafes and galleries. During the festival, corporate sponsors take over some of the buildings. Part of the Kimball Art Center becomes the Entertainment Weekly CafÈ, for example. There are also an AOL Cyber Lodge and the Delta Air Lines Sky Lodge.

This is only the second time Kielbasa has been to Sundance because, until last year, Sundance and the Sarasota festival overlapped.

"The entertainment industry is relatively small, so it’s important to show your face here, to make contacts," Kielbasa says. "I’ll run into somebody from [the specialty film studio] Fox Searchlight, for example, and then I’ve got a connection the next time we call Fox Searchlight for a film."

After lunch, I race to two more screenings, including the 6:30 p.m. world premiere of The Savages, a touching, funny film starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings caring for an elderly parent. Like most of the public screenings at Sundance, this one, in the 1,270-seat Eccles, is sold out. A couple hundred people are standing outdoors in the cold in the waiting-list line. "Got any extra tickets?" a frozen-faced guy implores as my shuttle bus arrives.

At a question-and-answer session after the film, director Tamara Jenkins says The Savages was finished only two days ago. And how important is a showcase at Sundance? Well, Hoffman flew in from Australia two hours before the premiere, and Linney came all the way from Argentina, where she was shooting her next movie.

After the screening, I head back to Main Street and grab a take-out sandwich from a deli, since there are lines outside most of the restaurants. I’m on my way home to turn in early when I get a call from Kielbasa, who has an extra ticket for a 9:30 p.m. film, An American Crime.

As we’re sitting in the theater, Kielbasa discovers the entertainment world is even smaller than he thought. The co-screenwriter of An American Crime is Irene Turner, who once was a stage manager at the Tamarind, a theater Kielbasa used to run in Los Angeles. They greet each other warmly after the film, while cast members Catherine Keener, James Franco and Bradley Whitford take the stage to answer questions from the audience.

Then Kielbasa invites me to join him at a late-night party sponsored by Premiere magazine, which has taken over a Main Street restaurant for the week. When we get there, two burly security guys are informing a line of would-be guests that the room is too crowded, so nobody else will be admitted.

"But we’re with the Italian press, and we’re on the list," a wavy-haired young man says.

"I don’t care, buddy, you’re not gettin’ in," one of the bouncers says.

Another man presses his case by dropping a couple of names, but the security guy shakes his head. "They hire us because we’re ignorant," he says. "We don’t know how important anybody is, so those names mean nothing to us."

But Kielbasa is undeterred. He makes a cell phone call, and soon Paul Turcotte, the publisher of Premiere (who had been to last year’s Sarasota festival), comes down and waves us in. The Italian press guys seethe with envy.

Saturday, Jan. 20

With flurries drifting down onto the quaint streets, Park City looks like a scene from a snow globe today. There’s a ski lift right in the middle of Main Street, so skiers and snowboarders are trudging down the sidewalks past TV crews from CNN and Access Hollywood..

At about noon, the celebrities are flying by faster than the snowflakes. Outside the Heineken Green Room at the foot of Main Street, 50 photographers and many more spectators are waiting as Teri Hatcher, Kyra Sedgwick, Paul Rudd, Molly Shannon and Tara Reid pick up shopping bags full of free goodies from various clothing and cosmetic companies. I’m told that I just missed Justin Timberlake (who’s in a festival film), and I hear that Anthony Hopkins (whose first directorial effort, Slipstream, premieres tonight) is on his way. The thought of seeing Sir Anthony picking up swag bags is too dispiriting, so I move on.

All this stargazing is a sore spot for organizers of Sundance, who are sensitive to criticism that the festival has strayed from Redford’s original goal of creating a showcase for out-of-the-mainstream independent film. Detractors say the festival has "gone Hollywood" and is now more about commerce than art. Much of the press focuses on what films sell for what amount, and on which celebrity is spotted at which party. Many think Sundance reached a new low last year, when Paris Hilton showed up.

So this year, Sundance volunteers are passing out "Focus on Film" buttons, which to me seems as alarming an idea as those "Whip Inflation Now" buttons that Gerald Ford trotted out in the ‘70s. If you have to remind Sundance audiences to focus on film, something is wrong.

"I do think things got out of whack last year," Kielbasa tells me. "There were too many celebrities, too much swag, too many high-end commercial studio films that were being launched here. Clearly, there’s been a course-correction this year."

Indeed, this year’s lineup is heavy on documentaries about war, genocide, global warming and torture, as well as tough, edgy features like An American Crime, inspired by an unimaginable real-life murder, and Trade, a film about the sex-slave industry.

At 8 p.m., I attend a screening of Save Me, a moving drama about a young man who enters an "ex-gay" ministry. To make it, I have to skip a party for actor Aaron Eckhart in a trendy Park City bar. Kielbasa had put me on the party list, and he seems surprised when he learns I missed it. So I remind him that I was heeding the admonition to "Focus on Film."

Sunday, Jan. 21

After sleeping in for a change, I join Kielbasa at a press/industry screening of The Interview, a film in which a journalist (Steve Buscemi) and a beautiful movie star (Sienna Miller) engage in an evening-long verbal duel. Kielbasa and I expect the best from Buscemi, and aren’t disappointed. But the funny and ferocious performance by Miller blows us away.

After the screening, we’re told that the cast will be available for a press conference in a Main Street lounge. Since Kielbasa is eager to bring The Interview to Sarasota, he accompanies me to the conference.

But when we get there, a haughty woman with a clipboard informs us that the conference "is only for the top press." When I complain, she retreats for a moment, then returns to say that because of space limitations, either Kielbasa or I can attend, but not both of us. Since I know Kielbasa is eager to talk to Buscemi about Sarasota, I decide to let him take my place. That way I can claim credit when The Interview is shown in Sarasota.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt like a second-class citizen at Sundance. Like every other credentialed member of the press or the film industry, I wear a big badge around my neck, which has my picture, my name and my affiliation. Whenever you enter a room, people are subtly checking you out to see if you are an important critic or a film distributor with the power to change lives. Dozens of times, I’ve seen flickers of disappointment cross people’s faces when they study my badge. I guess "Charlie Huisking, SARASOTA Magazine" just doesn’t do it for them.

Monday, Jan. 22

Following an afternoon press conference for the Creative Coalition, a film industry group interested in social issues, actor Joe Pantoliano greets Kielbasa warmly. Pantoliano has just learned that his new film Canvas, a drama about schizophrenia, will be screened in Sarasota.

"I’m so glad you liked the movie, Jody," says Pantoliano, a former Sopranos cast member who was in Sarasota last year with the film The Amateurs.

Pantoliano tells me he feels the Sarasota festival "has the kind of positive feeling and spirit that Sundance did 15 years ago. I really feel Sarasota is poised to be one of the best festivals around." He says he’s eager to return to Sarasota, even though "I hate Florida. But Sarasota and Longboat Key are beautiful. They are the only places I would go."

Earlier on Monday, I attend a screening of Grace is Gone, the movie that’s generating the most buzz at the festival. Starring John Cusack, it’s about a husband who learns his wife has been killed while serving in the army in Iraq. Instead of telling his two daughters, he packs them in the car for a road trip in an attempt to preserve their innocence as long as possible.

Cusack, wearing a sweater and a wool hat, receives a prolonged and emotional standing ovation for his understated performance following the screening. Later, I learn that Harvey Weinstein quickly bought the film for $4 million, closing the deal at 4:30 a.m. in a Park City condo.

By now, I’ve attended screenings in most of the Park City venues, including the Egyptian Theatre, a ‘30s-era theater on Main Street, and the Library Center Theatre, a 450-seat theater in a library building that also houses a day-care center. You pass a wall filled with kids’ crayon-colored artwork on your way to the movie. I love the unpretentiousness of the settings. The dress is casual, too. Ski parkas, funny hats and jeans are ubiquitous. Nobody wears coats and ties, and there’s not a black-tie event during the festival.

Keeping track of this winter gear is a new experience for me. Several times, I’ve had to search for a missing glove or scarf. And at many screenings, I’m still stamping my frozen feet during the opening credits. One filmmaker tells me he thinks the fact that "We’re all dressed in ridiculous getups, looking like the Michelin Man, keeps people’s egos in check. Everyone is friendly, and there’s not much of that Hollywood attitude."

However, I have encountered a few prima donnas, like the guy at the next table at dinner one night who seemed to be doing an impression of Ari Gold, the foul-mouthed agent on HBO’s Entourage.

"Have you talked to his people?" he screamed into his cell phone. "Well, you tell them that we’re not gonna let that little [expletive] get away with this. He can’t [expletive] with us any more."

You hear lots of great snippets of conversation while riding the shuttle buses that take you from venue to venue. One young man, apparently a fledgling screenwriter, was complaining to his companion about an officious secretary he deals with in L.A.

"She says to me, ‘He’s not in. Can he return?’’’ the screenwriter explained. "I guess she means, ‘Can he return the call?’ But she obviously wants me to know she’s too busy to speak in complete sentences."

The Park City buses, by the way, are always free, not just during the festival. And you know you’re not in Sarasota, because you’re likely to hear the sounds of Norah Jones or some world-music band blaring from the bus sound system. After a screening, when the shuttles are jammed with excited movie fans, the buses resemble moving mosh pits, with laughing passengers bouncing into one another at every turn.

In the afternoon, I finally hook up with Tom Hall, the program director of the Sarasota Film Festival. He’s been here all week, too, but he was slowed by food poisoning the first two days. His illness cut into his film-screening schedule, but Hall figures he’ll still see more than 50 Sundance movies before he leaves.

Also the programmer for the Nantucket Film Festival, Hall relies on word-of-mouth from colleagues he respects when deciding which films to see. "And sometimes we’ll focus on a particular director or actor we’re interested in bringing to Sarasota," he says.

After most press/industry screenings, representatives of the films are standing outside, poised to gauge interest from distributors or festival officials like Hall. Sometimes, Hall goes the extra mile to get a film he’s interested in. "I’m making omelettes for people from [the production company] ThinkFilm," he says. "They have two films we’d like to have."

Hall has been coming to Sundance off and on since 1997. "Has it lost its soul? It was pretty soulless when I got here, in the middle of the dot-com era," Hall says. "I think it’s gotten more soulful, actually. The program here is so strong, and you have such a great opportunity here to build relationships in the film community. I’d love to have more industry people in Sarasota, making deals and seeing our films."

But Hall grimaces when he hears Sarasotans say they hope the Sarasota festival could become "another Sundance."

"You don’t want to be another Sundance," he says. "Sundance is for the film industry. It’s not for the people of Park City. Our festival is much more about our community."

I realize that he’s right. Even at the public screenings in Sundance, the audience is made up mostly of industry people (you can tell because people cheer for "Unit Publicist" and "Hair and Makeup" during the credits). Most of the parties are thrown not by the festival, but by the industry, and the general public can’t get in.

Tuesday, Jan. 23

Though the festival continues for another five days, I’m heading back to Sarasota tomorrow, as is Jody. For my final screening, I pick Broken English, a quirky romantic comedy by director Zoe Cassavetes (daughter of the late filmmaker John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, who is a Broken English cast member). The film, which is scheduled to be part of the Sarasota lineup, stars Parker Posey as a somewhat neurotic working woman who has bad luck with men. This is a different role for Posey, who often plays confident, sometimes coldly efficient women on screen.

"To be as complicated on film as I am in real life gave me a sense of freedom," Posey says in a question-and-answer session. "I could take my intimacy issues, my abandonment issues, my fears, and put them up there. You see, I’m shy. I find it hard to pick up guys." Interrupting herself, Posey laughs and says, "OK, now I am over-sharing. Next question."

In the afternoon, I attend a press conference at which the Sarasota Film Festival is making news. The festival is one of eight from around the country that will be involved in a new filmmaker competition sponsored by Heineken beer and Premiere magazine. Dennis Hopper, considered a kind of godfather of independent film because of Easy Rider, is the special guest at the announcement party.

Sarasota will be in the company of festivals in such cities as Miami, Seattle, Las Vegas and San Diego in the program.

"We’ll be taking some festivals that tend to be regional in nature, and giving them national exposure," says Premiere publisher Turcotte. "In selecting the festivals, I also wanted to work with people whom I genuinely like, and who do great work."

Each of the eight festivals involved in the program will have one Heineken Red Star winning film, chosen out of the festival line-up for its originality, innovation and vision. All eight winners will be flown to Los Angeles, where their films will be screened before distributors and studio representatives. Each festival in the program will also be spotlighted in Premiere magazine.

"We are honored to have been selected for this program," says Kielbasa, who attended the press conference. "It shows that we have achieved some traction, some notoriety. And it’s nice to know that people think we have integrity, and that we’re good to work with."

Kielbasa is clearly pleased with the week he’s had. He’s renewed acquaintances with many film-industry officials, and has met new ones. He’s also talked with representatives of Delta Airlines and Cadillac about possible festival sponsorships.

"You never know when you’re going to make a connection that might lead to something," Kielbasa says. "At a bus stop one day, I began talking to one of the producers of a film called A Very British Gangster. I told him about our festival, and he gave me a screener of his film."

At yet another Sundance party, Kielbasa handed a Sarasota festival postcard to one of the producers of The Interview. The card had a picture of the festival headquarters, the Longboat Key Club and Resort, bordered by white sand and blue-green water. "This is where you’ll be staying if you bring your film to Sarasota," Kielbasa told him.

Wearing a ski hat and a parka, and about to go out into the 17-degree night, the producer looked intrigued.

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