Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #68: Sundance Channel On The Block?

It looks like Robert Redford and his partners (CBS/Viacom and NBC/Universal) are looking to sell off the Sundance Channel which was a spin off of the Sundance "indie film aesthetic" into cable television even though it wasn't technically connected to the festival.

I was in film school in Toronto in the 1990s, the decade where Sundance and independent film exploded. Everyone wanted their films to play at Sundance, because that was the entry to the big leagues. It sparked trends, it got things done, and it had credibility.

And when filmmakers who started at Sundance like Quentin Tarantino started making hit films, things got even bigger, and the Sundance Channel was born to provide a TV outlet for independent film.

Then things began to change.

Most of the "indie" distributors either went belly up and/or were absorbed by the mega-conglomerates drunk on the philosophy of "media consolidation." Sundance went from a scruffy little festival in a quaint mountain town into a mainstream industry event. With this change came all
the trappings of mainstream Hollywood:

1. Prices at hotels & restaurants that prevented independent filmmakers from even attending the festival, let alone participate in it without some sort of corporate involvement.

2. The media pretty much stopped talking about the films, and started talking about the celebrities attending and what they were wearing to the swanky apres-ski parties at the town's many sizzling nightspots. Causing indie filmmakers the world over to ask: "Why is Paris Hilton there?"

3. These same celebrities, flying over in carbon-spewing private jets, and parading around town in squadrons of gas-guzzling SUVs, each one bigger than a Belgian Duchy, stopping only to collect goodies from the corporate "swag rooms," and lecture the media (while drinking imported water from plastic bottles) that ordinary people need to respect Mother Earth like them. Do any of them actually bother to see any films that they're not in, let alone talk about them?

4. Corporations began to take over. Most of the "independent films" that get the prime showtimes, and what little attention that be taken away from Paris Hilton are usually made by the "indie" subsidiaries of one of the major corporations and have at least some sort of "name" actor in the cast. The little films made by little companies, financed by credit card debt and family loans, are usually lost in the snow.

5. The buzz factor faded. There was a time (the 90s) when facets of the general public would get word about some little film getting honoured at Sundance, and while their audiences weren't blockbuster in size, they could put a little film in a modest profit. And some even enjoyed some mainstream success. So here's a question to any reader who is outside the Hollywood scene: Can you name a Sundance film from the last 5 years that you not only heard of, but were excited to see? And even if you wanted to see them, you couldn't because...

6. Indie distribution fizzled. When the mega-corps consolidated the smaller, yet effective independent distributors, they really lost interest in getting people to actually see these films. Someone once said that there are two motivations going on in Hollywood: money and ego. In the hey-day, motives of distributors buying the films were money-driven. They wanted people to see the movies, so they could make money, and sell more of these movies. Nowadays, with "indies" as just another cog in bloated insensible machines, it's all about ego. You don't need to make money off the film, there are ways to use their failure as a plus, and buying films at the big festival gets you positive attention, invites to all the coolest parties, and that hot blond actress will think you're brave for spending other people's money to make a deal for the film. Henceforth, the film plays in Los Angeles for a couple of days and heads right for the video discount bin, if it's lucky.

And some critics of the Sundance Channel think that it went from being, for lack of a better word, money-driven, (which means that it was geared toward pleasing an audience looking for independent cinema) to ego driven (meaning it was meant to get "creative director" Robert Redford treated like an A-List star even though he hasn't carried a major hit this century).

Why else would they give air-time to the Al Franken show from Air America. They couldn't get people to listen to Al Franken on radio, why would people want to watch him talk on TV?

The general public, who could be lured to watch independent cinema and documentaries, aren't going to pay to get a channel to watch someone they won't even listen to for free. But it would get Redford and his corporate partners pats on the back from Hollywood's elite for their courage in spending shareholder's money.

It is reported that the Sundance Channel has 26 million dedicated subscribers, but that could be a hell of a lot bigger, if they somehow found to end the widening gulf between Hollywood's entertainers and their audience. The Sundance Festival was able to do it in the 90s.

Perhaps new owners could do that.

But the odds of that happening are pretty slim. Most likely it will be turned from a partnership between several companies to being owned by a single mega-corporation. Then its purpose will become feeding the ego of some executive and it too will fall into the widening TV content drought, showing the same small cluster of films ad infinitum, ad nauseaum.

And speaking of cable channels, read this post and let this be your battle cry:

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