This week Geoff Gilmore, the longtime director of the Sundance Film Festival took another job in film in New York. This presents an opportune moment for the powers that be at Sundance to take a look at itself within the context of other film festivals, and other conferences in general.
When "sex, lies, and videotape" launched Sundance into the public consciousness two decades ago, the festival was unique in discovering independent film and enabling the public to find out about those films. This year Steven Soderbergh returned to a Sundance festival in which news of the deal is more important than news of the film, a festival in which D-listers cravenly pimp for publicity, and the celebrity freebie booths get more coverage than the films. Sundance may need a reboot.
All of this takes place in an economy which will be suffering greatly for at least a few years, one in which business conferences and trade shows are being cancelled or scaled back left and right. Films will be harder to finance, and film festivals will find sponsorships harder to obtain. Sundance in one sense may benefit because many film festivals will disappear. On the other hand, they need to do something to actively engage the film loving public with Sundance, as opposed to the celebrity loving public who gets a tingle up their leg seeing Hulk Hogan's wife in Park City.
One conference model Sundance may want to examine is the TED conference, held annually in Long Beach. The impressive growth of TED is due to two factors. First, the conference is about ideas, indeed its motto is "Ideas worth spreading." From Bill Gates to J.J Abrams, Paola Antonelli to Aubrey de Grey, people pay a whole lot of money (several thousand dollars) to think laterally about subjects and concepts that may be new to them. It's a good sign to see people will still pay to learn.
TED involves the entire world in their conference by putting video all of the presentations online under a Creative Commons license. At last count there were 364. Some, such as Hans Rosling's graphic examination of poverty are astounding. Even the boring ones are still worth watching. But these free videos, which I would happily pay for, involve the viewer and bond them with the conference. It's a brilliant way to spread ideas.
Film is an art form, not just a product. Sundance should not be just a deal market or a screening opportunity for distributors. Film is an idea. In TED parlance, film is an "idea worth spreading." Kubrick, Kieslowski, and Kurosawa all had ideas worth spreading and discussing. The directors of the Sundance Film Festival, the most important such festival in the world, might want to take a cue from TED in shaping the future content, and the availability of said content, to a global (not just Park City) audience hungry to learn more about the art of film, as opposed to the art of the deal.