Sundance Film Festival as a Gatekeeper: An Investigation

Sundance Film Festival, a prestigious annual gathering held within the blistering snowing winters in a cold January, holds its film festival within the small workings of Park City, Utah where it carries its honour as the largest independent film festival within the United States. Curated by renowned Hollywood magnet Robert Redford, the festival initially started as a way to attract more filmmakers to the city, eventually snowballing (pun intended) into an institute for some of the biggest independent filmmakers to create their name. In this post, we will investigate their place as gatekeepers of cinema, both on a domestic and international level.

Let’s commence by looking at this on a field level. Utilising the festival’s lineup of last year, we can see that the lineup, diverse from its dramatic and documentarian titles, sits within the smaller section of the scale. Sundance, in due of predominantly screening independent cinema, focus on showcasing films of aesthetic and cultural worth, under the impression that these films are designed for smaller audiences, rather than the mainstream everyday moviegoer. We can look at the documentary City of Ghosts, brings forth the atrocities within the city of Raqqa, perpetrated by ISIS. A film of this nature, brutal and unrelenting in its depiction, is less worried about value of entertainment but rather a means of showcasing a film of cultural value for an audience perhaps unaware of it.

Secondly, let’s look at the lineup on a capital level. Last year’s lineup of the festival showcased the varied amalgamation of first time filmmakers, filmmakers whose work were showcased in years prior and veteran filmmakers. The capital is embedded within the festival’s lineup annually, showcasing films that reflect on discussion, thematics and resonance. An example of this is the widely acclaimed Call Me By Your Name. Premiering at the festival, the film depicts a traditional love story told with earnest, realisation and dramatic heart that springboard the film into the festival circuit, launching its leading actors into the cultural zeitgeist and eventually, the Academy Awards.

Finally, we look at the festival through its habitus. Sundance tailors its festival in providing an outlet to showcase titles not necessarily showcased in your traditional local cinema. It allows for niche filmmakers, perhaps even unknown filmmakers, an opportunity to showcase their work to even further its journey into reaching a wider audience. It allows independent filmmakers an avenue to cater their work to a popular and acclaimed institution such as Sundance and cultivate an audience open and eager to consume the content they make and in turn, further their careers as movie makers.

Director Kevin Smith first started his career back in the early 1990s with a film following a day in the life of two store clerks, delving into length dialogue heavy diatribes about romance, death and Star Wars. The film made its premiere at Sundance, launching his career from there. He often credits Sundance into kickstarting his career, like this tweet for example. Smith’s quiet yet groundbreaking film passed a festival’s procedure of gatekeeping. It allowed for further exposure exceeding its $27,000 budget in box office returns, adored recognition from critics and fans and levels of prestige, even scoring itself a slot at 1994’s Cannes. From the likes of Smith, Tarantino, Soderbergh to name a few, Sundance well and truly deserves its title of the largest international film festival in the United States, birthing some of the biggest names of cinema we know today but more crucially, honours itself as a gatekeeper to films of varying type.



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