PARK CITY - A year ago this week an unassuming indie called "Beasts of the Southern Wild" came to Park City looking for an intimate audience here at the very least, a distribution deal and therefore a chance at a wider audience at the very most. Certainly things like Oscar nominations were way off the radar, and yet, a week ago, the film landed major nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and, perhaps the most surprising nomination of the year, Best Director.
But the film didn't merely leap into the world with the Sundance Film Festival as a launching pad. It was nurtured through the Sundance Institute's system every step of the way. Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar's script came here through the Screenwriters Lab, later graduating to the Directors Lab. Eventually, it even met its funding at the Institute's Creative Producing Summit, so it's fitting that Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper and Sundance Founder and President Robert Redford are proud of the trajectory the film has taken.
"We started Sundance with a developmental mechanism, working with new artists that haven't found their voice yet, but have indications that they are going to be interesting," Redford said this afternoon. "'Beasts of the Southern Wild' is probably one of the great examples that we have of why Sundance is here and what my intention was to begin with."
Putnam marveled at the film's Oscar tally, not only because it's good for the field of independent cinema, but that it indicates, as Redford said in a press conference earlier this morning, that diversity can be commercial. "It shows that a movie with an authentic voice, that doesn't fit in any box that anybody could have predicted going in, stands a chance of being not only high quality but also recognized and enjoyable and work for people," Putnam said. "It really found its feet through the Sundance process, so we're very proud of it."
When Cooper was putting last year's slate together, he said he knew immediately that the festival was going to play the film. "I actually thought in my head, 'Grand Jury Prize,'" he said. "I thought that when I saw 'Precious,' too. I thought audiences were really going to respond to that, and it's an offbeat film for sure, but I actually thought, 'If this film can't find an audience, then we're doing something wrong.'"
Nevertheless, the road from Sundance to Oscar is a long one with many twists and turns. Cooper noted Todd Louiso's "Hello I Must Be Going" as a film he thought would surely catch on and ride a big wave throughout the year, but that didn't really happen. Films like Zeitlin's are few and far between, and certainly difficult to see coming. Distribution takes over at a certain point and the art of the sell has its day, but there has to be something for passion to take hold, and "Beasts" certainly had that in 2012.
The trio also discussed shifting film technology (virtually all submissions are shot on digital), the easy access of film production capabilities (while there are more films to sift through, Putnam said the percentage of quality is still there relative to the greater batch) and new initiatives (such as the baby steps process of expanding overseas with Sundance London).
This year's festival has a somewhat inordinate amount of returning filmmakers -- Shane Carruth (a former award winner), Lynne Shelton, Drake Doremus and Zal Batmanglij, for example -- but Cooper didn't address why that might be beyond noting that filmmakers do like to return and appreciate the opportunity the fest presents. But also notable this year is the amount of films on the US Competition slate that feature name talent, also somewhat larger than normal. That he attributed to something merely int he water as name talent more and more gravitate toward independent cinema and the sorts of films the festival is keen to feature every year.
With that overture on the state of independent filmmaking, the growth of Sundance and the afterglow of one of its biggest successes to date, the 35th annual Sundance Film Festival is off to the races, with premieres of "Crystal Fairy," "May in the Summer," "Twenty Feet from Stardom" and "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" set for this evening. Be sure to keep it here at HitFix where we'll have a whole team of people covering, including Greg Ellwood, Drew McWeeny, Katie Hasty, Dan Fienberg and myself, among others. And check out this morning's starting gun press conference embedded at the top of this post.
The 35th annual Sundance Film estival runs January 17 - January 27.