PARK CITY, UTAH — Ever since Steven Soderbergh put what was a grade-Z resort town on the film-business map with sex, lies, and videotape in 1989, the Indies and foreigners essentially hijacked the Oscars. For two decades, give or take, if an Indian slumdog or an English patient did not capture Best Picture, they nonetheless dominated the nominations of major categories — picture, acting, direction — and let Hollywood gobble up the camera and costume awards.
Sundance has since ceded the role of award broker to the two main industry festivals — trade shows, really — Cannes and Toronto. But it has done its part over the last two decades as a brand to sell the public on what was obvious: the good stuff was made anywhere but Hollywood, just the way the public figured out as far back as the '70s that nothing good was rolling out of Detroit equal to an Audi.
But now the entertainment landscape has changed: Miramax, once the indie standard bearer is dead, ceasing operation last week — and Avatar is king. And after The Dark Knight got passed over last year for Best Picture, the studios decided enough was enough with the Academy. Oscar, after all, was conceived in 1929 to promote Hollywood as a class joint in the wake of numerous scandals. So for 2009, if it took expanding Best Picture to 10 nominees to regain its self-respect, its relevance, not to mention the show's dwindling audience — then so be it.
Could this Best Picture expansion also be a ploy for a bigger box office for the nominees? No matter what anyone says about why the studios want to be included in the Oscars, it's never been about the money. They've got plenty of money. In fact, for years, the Best Picture award had been one carefully calibrated to be serious but not too successful. Think Marty, or The Apartment, or The Deer Hunter. After Hollywood reduced itself to making only franchise blockbusters, studios decided it wasn't enough to just take the money and run: they wanted to look at themselves in the morning mirror, too. It's sobering to think that even expanding to 10 nominations this year in a craven bid to matter, the best Hollywood can do is assure Best Picture slots for Avatar and TheBlind Side.
Still, Hollywood wants the brand. It wants to be Redford, with a mighty pine tree for a face, sunlight in his hair, and the respect of the entire planet on his side. So though its impact may be waning, the rarefied art-film cachet of Sundance continues to sway Academy voters — if against their better judgment.
That said, Sundance decided to redefine its own brand this year.
"This is Your Guide to Cinematic Rebellion," the cover to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival program guide blares in red.
Inside, the theme of the festival goes into faux revolutionary overdrive:
"REBEL," the book says in capital red letters, the first of a half dozen exhortations that also played out on screen before every screening.
"THIS IS THE RENEWED REBELLION. . . "
"THIS IS THE RE-CHARGED FIGHT AGAINST THE ESTABLISHMENT OF THE EXPECTED . . . "
"THIS IS THE REBIRTH OF THE BATTLE FOR BRAVE NEW IDEAS . . . "