The collision of funk and glitz that occurs at the Sundance Film Festival -- the bigger-than-ever 1993 edition of which opened last night in Park City, Utah, with "Into the West" -- raises inevitable, annual, questions:
The 10-day festival will, as it has since 1984, present and promote what it considers the best of the year's crop of American independent cinema -- usually offbeat, often outrageous, and frequently anti-Hollywood in sensibility. And it attracts representatives of the major studios with the possibility of finding a director who can make millions for them cheaply. Does this unholy alliance constitute a conflict of interest? Compromise? Creeping commerce?
"One of the things people always misinterpret is that when the industry becomes enormously interested in you, you change the nature of your work to cater to it," said Geoff Gilmore, the festival's program director. "I really don't believe we have and if you look at the programming we've done this year it indicates that."
When Robert Redford helped found the Sundance Institute in 1981, it was with the purpose of nurturing independent filmmakers, those whose creative intentions didn't meet Hollywood's criteria for marketable "product." But ever since 1989, when "sex, lies, and videotape" moved from Sundance to Big Bucks, the festival has been perceived, as a paper recently intimated, a kind of triple-A league providing talent to the majors.
"That's only one function of Sundance," Mr. Gilmore said. "We're just as much a showcase for filmmakers who don't want to be part of the major film industry, and whose work couldn't be, by its very nature. What's happened in the last couple of years is that there's been . . . a recognition that filmmakers working outside the industry are creating work with originality, guts, vision and which to some degree is commercially successful."
After showing "Reservoir Dogs" at Sundance last year, writer/director Quentin Tarantino moved into a multipicture deal with Danny DeVito. Generally, though, the benefits of Sundance exposure are difficult to gauge.
Last year's dramatic Grand Prize winner, "In the Soup," took so long to find a distributor that the glow of Sundance had probably faded; the previous year's winning feature, "Poison," got more mileage out of the Rev. Donald Wildmon's outrage than the festival's praise. But other work probably did benefit from
exposure in Park City, especially the two Audience Award winners: "The Waterdance," Neil Jimenez' and Michael Steinberg's dramatic comedy, and "Brother's Keeper," which was subsequently chosen documentary of the year by the the New York Film Critics Circle.
"It's an amazing experience, because it really has become the launching pad for American independent films," said Christine Vachon, New York-based producer of "Poison" and last year's entry "Swoon," and a member of this year's dramatic film jury.
It's also very tough, she said. "You're launching your film in a very important venue, all these Hollywood types are circling around trying to figure out what's hot, so you feel there is a lot at stake. But if you look at all the films that won for the past few years, it's not like any of them have been box-office bonanzas.
"But what the festival does do is begin putting those films into the national zeitgeist, so when they begin their various runs or distribution, Sundance has already laid the groundwork."
Of course, some films are going to develop a buzz with or without a festival: "Boxing Helena," by Jennifer Lynch, daughter of David, reportedly goes out on a limb in its evocation of obsessive love; Mr. Steinberg's "Bodies, Rest & Motion," which features Phoebe Cates, Bridget Fonda, Eric Stolz and Tim Roth, is one of the more star-heavy entries; singer Paul Simon and poet Allen Ginsberg are subjects of documentaries, as are two dread diseases: AIDS ("Silverlake Life: The View From Here") and prostate cancer (Frank Perry's "On the Bridge").
Denzel Washington is the subject of the second annual Piper-Heidsieck "Independent Vision" tribute, and special series will focus on films from Hong Kong, Latin America and Europe. Director Philip Kaufman ("The Right Stuff," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Henry and June") will be feted by a retrospective.
All in all there are 32 world premieres, 18 U.S. premieres; 16 films in the dramatic competition and 15 in the documentary. Mr. Gilmore reports that ticket sales are up 30 percent over last year, and 60 percent of the programs are sold out.