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Will Sundance Institute x Chicago be good for the local film industry?

Michael Phillips – Chicago Tribune (TNS)

There’ll be more than one story to write about Sundance Institute x Chicago 2024, coming to town June 28-30. A sort of pop-up import, sponsored by the Chicago Film Office and city tourism bureau Choose Chicago, Sundance Institute x Chicago is the power of branding incarnate. The event will consist of a modest four-screening package of titles that premiered in January at the annual Sundance Film Festival of Park City, Utah, fame.

The off-screen activity is apparently the bigger deal: panels, discussions and filmmaker-centric meetups, patterned after the Sundance Institute’s programs designed to develop new work. Chicago’s late-March announcement included a mayoral endorsement, citing the three-day Sundance-branded event as a “momentous occasion for our city,” providing “an unparalleled platform for our local talent to engage with industry leaders and decision-makers.”

Good news, right? Well, it depends who’s being asked that question.

Over the years Sundance has puts its name on various “best of” spinoff events, including mini-festivals in Mexico City and London. From one angle, this June’s Chicago event moves Chicago to “the center of independent film, independent storytelling, and independent film exhibition,” as Chicago Film Office deputy commissioner Jonah Zeiger wrote on LinkedIn earlier this spring.

Zeiger elaborated last week in a phone interview, characterizing Chicago as a “talent magnet and a talent incubator” that “doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.” Details on the late June Sundance initiative, he said, will be announced in late May. The idea, Zeiger said, came out of his initial discussions last year with Sundance officials to host the Sundance Labs developmental program.

Sundance Institute x Chicago, he said, could “put Chicago at the center of the national conversation,” engaging “audiences and filmmakers who don’t ordinarily have access to the Sundance experience.”

Former Chicago film office head and consultant Rich Moskal seconded that in a Tribune op-ed piece. “Big brands get attention,” he asserted. “They’re built for it. And make no mistake, Sundance is big.”

But like many of the film world’s biggest players and most recognizable brands, Sundance has faced considerable churn and economic challenges lately. The challenges include a pandemic; the threatened collapse of commercial indie moviegoing; an increasingly sluggish sales market at recent Sundance festivals.

Last month Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente resigned her post. And last year, the Sundance Festival went public with its interest in getting out of Park City after its contract expires in 2026, and finding a new city to call home. (Some speculate it’s a negotiating tactic, suggesting Sundance is too wedded to its Robert Redford-founded roots to relocate effectively.)

Several Chicago film festival programmers view Sundance Institute x Chicago as potential competition and a possible harbinger of a bigger disruption to Chicago’s packed festival calendar. In a recent Substack column headlined “McFilm Festivals: How ‘Chain’ Festivals Can Be a ‘Lose-Lose’ for Local Film Communities,” critic and curator Anthony Kaufman, longtime programmer for the Chicago International Film Festival and his own Doc10 festival, acknowledged his reliance on Sundance premieres for both local festivals. He argues that that “Sundance’s ‘big brand’ has the ability to threaten the existing festival landscape in Chicago.”

Could, and should, Chicago make a serious bid to bring the Sundance Film Festival here, come 2027? Zeiger declined to speculate, but sounded wide open to the idea.

“I know there are some skeptics” among the Chicago film festival programmer ranks, Zeiger says. “But the outpouring of elation” from the local film community, he says, suggests the June event — one of three film gatherings coming to town that month, along with Filmscape (June 21-23) and the Independent Film Exhibition Conference, June 25-28 — can open up new avenues for Chicago’s film creatives, current and future.

I talked to critic and festival programmer Robert Daniels, associate editor of the film site, about the implications of Sundance Institute x Chicago. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What was your first reaction to the announcement of Sundance Institute x Chicago? And is the “X” silent, the way it was supposed to be with “Godzilla x Kong”?

A: My first thought was one of excitement. I was, like, “Oh! This could be a cool thing!” Sundance has done something like this in other cities, and now a version of it is coming to Chicago, and Chicago is always fighting to be recognized on a larger cinematic stage.

Then I took a step back and thought: Wait a minute. We have festivals here in Chicago that program their lineups, in part, based on what comes directly out of Sundance. What happens if you take that away? What happens if you take away the prospect of filmmakers and actors coming to the Chicago Critics Film Festival or Doc10?

To borrow a quote from the first season of “The Bear,” it’s a delicate ecosystem here. And Sundance could throw a wrench into things, with some unforeseeable and foreseeable effects.

Q: Here’s one thing that seems off to me. This is pure guesswork, for now, but let’s say the city ends up spending around $250,000 for the Sundance drop-in this June. If that figure’s anywhere near reality, that’s roughly five times the city’s annual funding of the Chicago International Film Festival.

A: Wow (laughs). Well, I suppose the argument can be made that whatever they’re paying Sundance is worth it. You get the big name, which is known worldwide even among those who know very little about film. But look at CIFF, which just came off one of the festival’s best programming years in their history. I thought the 2023 festival was in some ways better than Toronto’s.

You hear those figures, and you have to wonder: What could CIFF do with that sort of money?

And let’s say, hypothetically, that the Sundance festival moves to Chicago permanently. Right now I’m one of the programmers for the Chicago Critics Film Festival. We program heavily out of Sundance. Doc10 programs heavily out of Sundance. There was immediate discussion about how a regular Sundance presence in town would affect us. We were already hearing from filmmakers who were saying, “Well, uh, I think we’re waiting to see what this ‘Sundance Institute in Chicago’ is.” … It’s pretty clear that if Sundance does move, it’ll affect (the film festival planning) in whichever city it moves to.

Q: If that’s the case, is the strongest argument for Sundance Institute x Chicago hinging on what it can do to foster some connections for Chicago filmmakers?

A: I think so. I suppose we won’t know until we try it. Dip the toe in the water. The success of something like this Sundance pop-up might not be in any measurable monetary sense, but more like the potential opportunities that come out of it. So. We’ll have to see where opportunity takes us. But I’m not sure if this is a rising-tide-lifting-all-boats situation.


(Michael Phillips is the Chicago Tribune film critic.)


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