Sundance v. Tribeca?


Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper (left) with Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam and Sundance founder Robert Redford at the festival back in January.

These days, it seems, its not enough to just be a film festival anymore.

In the decade since the Tribeca Film Festival was formed, that festival has raised the stakes for other events. The Sundance Film Festival seemed to react by sharpening its mission or run the risk of losing its spot atop the American fest hierarchy. With Miramax dead, the opportunity to be American independent film’s leading brand was up for grabs. Sundance swiftly hired Keri Putnam (former president of production at Miramax) and then quickly set a course for conquering every corner of the indie film map. 

But, is this growth muddying Sundance’s brand identity, wondered The New York Times. It’s a timely question with the 11th Tribeca Film Festival getting underway tonight in New York while across the pond the first Sundance London kicks off its four day run next week.  

Tribeca was born all grown up. It had an iconic actor at the helm, a major sponsor in the passenger seat and the largest city in the country ready to love it from day one. Along the way, Tribeca created a new roadmap for a modern film festival by aggressively expanding its footprint. They even hired away the head of the United States’ most important film festival, Geoff Gilmore. In under 10 years they’d made a name for themselves domestically and overseas.

Here’s the thing, though, Sundance has always been more than just a festival.

A champion of the Sundance Institute and its mission, I’ve been attending the festival since 1993. In that time the traditional indie film business model matured. At a peak moment, Robert Redford launched Sundance Channel to compete with the fledgling Independent Film Channel. Sundance tried to remind attendees that their fest was still about the filmmakers. At the fest, the press focused on the deals and the Sundance Institute trumpeted their year round labs. Sundance was about art, not commerce, Redford would reiterate.

Today, their artists services have expanded as the Indiewood business model has shifted.

The Institute is going deeper in a number of other areas, including their push into exhibition with the Sundance Cinemas, as well as the growth of their lab programs to nurture an even wider array of artists in more and more countries (including the Middle East and India). 

Sundance is enhancing their brand overseas with the upcoming four day event in London that happens to fall during the Tribeca Film Festival back home. They are exporting their core product - the Sundance Film Festival experience - overseas. 

So, has Sundance gone too far by branching out to Britain? I don’t think so. 

As I was quoted in Brooks Barnes’ New York Times piece, it feels like the latest skirmish in a battle to be the leading brand for a type of American film. Sundance had to get there before Robert DeNiro did.

What do you think?

Notes

  1. tedhope answered: Film festivals have to be more than annual presentations — and must always answer what they represent. Sundance’s msg is “Artists First!”.
  2. eug posted this