PARK CITY, United States (AFP) – For three decades, it’s been America’s premier independent film festival. But this year more than ever, there is talk at Sundance of the blurring divide between movies, television and online.
This year’s festival lineup even includes two TV shows, while the Sundance Institute, the body behind the festival, has set up a separate “laboratory” for young filmmakers interested in making television rather than movies.
Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford acknowledged that the TV industry is developing faster than filmmaking, while stressing the need to embrace change.
“It’s part of the fabric of storytelling in terms of film. So you know, television is film,” said the 78-year-old movie icon, who named the festival after his character in the 1969 classic “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”
“They’re blurring, and there’s a reason why: mainstream film is shrinking, obviously. It’s harder and harder for an artist to find their way in the major film business, so television offers more opportunities.”
The phenomenon is well-recognised: the traditional business model of movies released only in theatres has been creaking for a long time.
But the exponential rise of new distribution formats, from DVDs to Video on Demand (VOD), premium cable channels like HBO and now Netflix, Amazon, Vimeo and other streaming outlets has changed the game for good.
Netflix and co are, understandably, popular at Sundance for their support for artists, whether TV or film. The appearance of “Netflix” on a film’s credits elicited spontaneous applause in at least one screening this week.
Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, said it was a no-brainer for young filmmakers.
“Thirty years ago, when you came out of film school as a 22-year-old, you probably had to take your first job in television, but you said ‘What I really want to do is direct features,’” he told AFP.
“If I were a 22-year-old coming out of film school now and a genie comes out of a bottle and says you can either have a feature film or be the showrunner for a series on HBO or Amazon Prime… I wouldn’t have to think very long.”
The Sundance Institute, the non-profit that runs the festival, last year added a television writing “lab” to its selection of workshops for young filmmakers, said Keri Putnam, the Institute’s executive director.
“We had an incredible outpouring of interest,” she told reporters at the festival’s opening press conference on Thursday.
“This really came about because we were listening to our artist community… and many of them were interested in understanding how to build skills for that form.”
Festival director John Cooper noted that last year they screened the first episode of “Transparent”, the dark comedy that won Golden Globe glory this month for online retail giant Amazon, battling to catch up with Netflix.
This year, the festival has two “episodic” (as officials here calls TV) offerings: animated series “Animals”, about downtrodden creatures in New York, and HBO’s “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”.
“For me, interesting TV and independent film are running neck and neck. Both in the talent they use, they switch back and forth, and in the freshness the quality, the things that we want to see as adults in this world,” Cooper said.
“I think it’s exciting.”
Thompson said that, while television is undoubtedly on the rise, watching movies together on a big screen in a darkened theater will be around for a long time yet.
“I think there is always going to be that appeal of the cinematic experience, and while television is beginning to get closer to that with HD and widescreen, it’s still not quite the same,” he said.
“That experience has been around for 100 years, and it’s not going to gently into the night.”