Did Boycott Hurt Sundance?
Editor's note: The 2009 Sundance Film Festival ended this past weekend with the usual awards and hoopla surrounding the films that found distributors and will likely find their way to an art house cinema near you later this year.
What made this year in Park City, Utah (where the festival is held) different from previous years was a general sense that things were slower than expected. Could that have been because of the call by some political activists to boycott of the event because of the Mormon Church's involvement in the passing of California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 been the reason? EDGE's Padraic Maroney visited Park City this past weekend to find out.
Boycott or Not?
The Sundance Film Festival is the place for anyone who is anyone in Hollywood to be seen during the month of January. It’s where the best of independent cinema is screened and many gems are found. Recent years have seen the reputation of the festival change from being known for the films it screens as much as for the celebrities that descend on Park City, Utah and the swag and parties that follow them.
Life was good in Park City until Election Day last year when Proposition 8 passed in California and banned gay marriage in that state. Shortly after its passage, reports came out members of the Mormon religion were significant contributors to the passage of the proposition.
Following news of the Mormon financial support of Prop 8, a boycott of this year’s festival was rallied and a dark cloud was cast over the usually upbeat and energetic atmosphere. It’s a cloud that left many questioning why this year’s festival was a much more subdued affair and how much the boycott was affecting those who did attend.
One of the loudest voices calling for the boycott was that of John Aravosis, editor of Americablog. Shortly after the election, Aravosis wrote on his site proposing the boycott: "Let’s start with the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It’s high time Sundance found a better state to party in than the seat of the Mormon Church. Sundance is THE gathering of liberal Hollywood. The last place it should be is in Utah."
With a threat of boycotting unclear - whether it meant not coming to Park City at all or to stand outside of theaters to picket - festival organizers weren’t sure what to expect on opening night. (Ironically the most tauted film of the opening weekend was the Jim Carrey-helmed gay comedy "I Love You, Philip Morris," in which he played a con man sent to prison where he falls in love with another prisoner, played by Ewan McGregor.)
"Days before we didn’t know what to expect. We were prepared for anything because we heard a lot of talking," Brooks Addicott, Associate Director of Media Relations at the Sundance Institute, said. "It was important to protect our filmmakers and patrons."
Along with its unfortunate locale, part of why people are aiming attacks at the festival is because of where some of the films are screened. In the heart of Park City is the Holiday Village fourplex cinema owned by Cinemark Theaters; Cinemark’s CEO Alan Stock contributed $9,999 to Yes on Prop 8. The festival continued to use the locations for this year’s festival - and the films shown there were among the first to sell out, partially due to the smaller size of the four theaters. For the duration of the fest, Addicott stresses, the Sundance organizers take over running most of the operations within the Holiday Village theaters.
"During the festival only the concessions are run by the actual theater. All other [jobs] are festival volunteers," she explained.
She adds that since the commencement of the festival on January 15th there has been no picketing outside of any of the theaters. While there may not have been an organized protest within the Park City limits, there were silent protests such as one attendee who wore a bright pink button reading, "I Support Gay Marriage."
Photo: A still from the gay film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with the highest profile: "I Love You Philip Morris" with Ewan McGregor (left) and Jim Carrey.
Actress Cindy Cheung, who is appearing at the festival in the film "Children of Invention,’ had come across information about the boycott when she was on the Internet researching for her first trek to Park City. But for the former Californian she hadn’t heard enough about the protest to consider cancelling her trip and abandon her film.
"For me, it was about the film. Had I heard more about boycotting, I would have looked into it more," Cheung said.
Festivalgoer Aliza Mills, who traveled from Los Angeles, didn’t question attending because she believes a festival boycott would have been misplaced.
"I thought it was ridiculous. Sundance didn’t pay for Prop 8. [The boycott] will have a negative effect on something that doesn’t deserve it," Mills said. But she adds "I agree with boycotting companies that back Prop 8,"
According to Addicott, Mills wasn’t alone as many out filmmakers were very vocal about coming to Sundance this year as a show of support. Director of the short "575 Castro St.," which uses audio from Harvey Milk recorded shortly before his death, Jenni Olson was adamant about being present this year.
"It was non-negotiable that they were coming," explained Addicott.
Many of the filmmakers insisted on taking part this year because of the history that the film festival has with promoting gay themed films. This year’s competition included 18 selections that were produced by out filmmakers or dealt with LGBT subject matter. As in previous years, the Queer Lounge presence was just as visible as ever.
A November article in Variety quoted Chad Griffin, a consultant to the "No on 8" campaign as being against the Sundance boycott also. He called it wouldn’t be "warranted or justified" to boycott because of the festival’s support of gay and lesbian filmmakers.
From within the festival it was difficult to tell there was even a controversy surrounding this year’s event. Most of the talk was about the films, but what was being unspoken was heard louder.
Many of the festivalgoers this year commented the tone of this year’s festival was much different from previous years, but weren’t sure if that could be contributed to the boycott, the nation’s sagging economy or even the historic Inauguration that fell on day six of the festival.
Mills had only arrived to the festival midway through, but by Friday she was questioning the difference this year from the last time she attended.
"I was wondering. It does feel slower and talking to people I’m not sure if it’s the economy, people boycotting or what," Mills said.
Mills’ questions were echoed by some of the festival volunteers who said that attendance was down and things haven’t been as crowded as in previous years. During closing weekend one volunteer quoted ticket sales as being up five percent, but all other reports coming out of Park City have said that attendance over all was down from recent years. But so far no straight answer has come as to what has factored into the dip in attendance the most.
Photo: A scene from Stefano Tummolini’s Italian drama, "Un altro pianeta" / "One Day in a Life" that follows a group of Italian gay men at the beach over a single day. The film played in competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.