World Wide Sundance

Will the Web make film festivals obsolete?

Whatever it once was, today’s Sundance has gotten ugly. For 10 days, Park City, Utah, gets tied up in more velvet ropes than a practitioner of Japanese bondage, while boorish “fans” make New York’s Meatpacking District seem mellow by comparison. The films, meanwhile, range from great to boring to barely watchable. You might think, in our era of decentralized media, that we would have discovered a better way of finding good independent films. Yet, despite living in an age where bands are born on MySpace and blogs by basement dwellers out-rate CNN, the world of independent film seems strangely immune to the World Wide Web. Sundance and other film festivals represent the big running exception to the main media story of the 2000s: crowds besting experts in finding great independent material.

At first glance, the Web and independent film appear to be a perfect match. The main economic challenge in independent film is finding the one great film amid the hundreds of pretentious, dull, or simply average films that get produced every year. Someone has to sit through those films and find the few diamonds in the several thousand acres of roughage.

The Web can be an incredible tool for finding such needles in haystacks. It takes advantage of that segment of the public with enough time, bandwidth, and surplus attention (i.e., boredom) to watch or read completely unknown content. In Web culture, if you like what you see, you recommend it—either by linking to it on your blog, through recommendation sites like reddit, or simply telling friends. In the same way that Wikipedia was built by volunteers, the Web is the world’s greatest, all-volunteer system for finding that one great cartoon or blog entry buried underneath thousands of duds. Moreover, the good independent stuff the Web finds gets big attention by any measure. The No. 1 YouTube video of 2006, The Evolution of Dance, had 38 million viewers. That’s comparable to the number of people who paid to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the top-grossing film of 2006.

But the Web’s decentralized filtering system isn’t working for film. Many people speculate that no one wants to watch a movie on his or her computer. While that may be a part of the story, the “people won’t do X on their computer” explanation has been wrong so often that it cannot be the full answer. The last decade has demonstrated that people are surprisingly willing to put up with lower quality or discomfort to get the content they want or to get stuff for free, whether it’s telephones (cell phones and Skype), music (MP3s), and even video (YouTube). We just aren’t that picky.

Other Web-film pundits suggest that Internet bandwidth is the problem, and that movies are just too big to download. While that may have been true once, it’s getting less true. At a site like Film Annex, you can download a Charlie Chaplin movie of VHS quality in about six minutes. The films on Netflix’s preview and watch-it-now service deliver smoothly and quickly. And even the big studios have taken baby steps toward Net downloads with the sprinkling of films now on iTunes.

The real problem is not the technology, it’s us. Independent producers today only rarely make their films available online. There are early exceptions, like the short films collected at the Daily Reel or the DVD documentaries at Brave New Films. But many independent filmmakers are surprisingly traditional about how they want to reach their audience. Like the film version of debutantes, they dream of the day that Harvey Weinstein or Sony Classics will show up, sweep them off their feet, and distribute their film to the masses. The hope of signing the big deal has inhibited a flood of online, feature-length film—so far.

That may change. The more daunting problem may be our attention spans. Educators studying college students in the 1970s and 1980s confirmed a 15-minute boredom barrier—people’s attention drops off at the 15- to 20-minute mark, even for material we’re supposed to be paying attention to. If that’s true, it may be a powerful reason why the Web may have trouble acting as a filter for promising but unknown films. Web filters, to work, rely on thousands of volunteers willing to watch the product and issue a recommendation. The short run times of pop songs and YouTube videos (maximum length: 10 minutes) makes Web filtering work for them.But there may be no Army of Davids willing to sit through a completely unknown 90-minute film to figure out whether it’s any good, in which case, Web filtering breaks down.

Is there a way to get past the 15-minute barrier? The traditional way is to pay people. Film festivals employ programmers whose otherwise pleasant lives also include watching hundreds and hundreds of lousy films. One of my best friends is a programmer for the Toronto Film Festival, and she sometimes locks herself into her room to get through her assigned films. The process works: She is a good first filter for films from Argentina, Mexico, and other up-and-coming Latin American markets. But she wouldn’t do it for fun or for free.

Beyond paying, film festivals are themselves an ingenious collective solution to the 15-minute barrier. Through what amounts to an implicit pact, Sundance attendees put on a good attitude and sit through films that they might not normally pay to see—with parties, skiing, and swag serving as a compensating factor. One of the great ironies of Sundance is that people will fight bouncers to get into films that would normally play to empty theaters. While individually everyone might chicken out, watching an unknown film with a hundred other people builds a certain esprit de corps. Or, at least, it’s a little harder to get up and leave.

The Sundance system works: For 10 days, everyone agrees to sit through a lot of films, good and bad, and presto, out comes a surprise hit. Like Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Little Miss Sunshine, or this year’s Teeth. A film about a woman with teeth in her vagina is a pretty good example of material that’s hard to judge before you actually see it. The discovery of these films is the festivals’ own decentralized filtration system in action, and its success at uncovering winners helps explain Sundance’s lasting power.

Where does this leave the Web-film movement? Most obviously, films shorter than 15 minutes or so will most easily and naturally use the Web as a launch pad, while a Web revolution for feature-length film will be harder. Producers will have to, first of all, leggo their egos—get used to putting their entire films online, trusting that the exposure will be worth it. Second, Web distributors will have to rely far more heavily on expert filters (i.e., critics, programmers, scholars), paid or otherwise, than is usual for Web businesses obsessed with the doctrine of the long tail and its more-content-is-always-better mantra. Let’s face it: For someone to invest money and 90 minutes in a completely unknown film, they’ll need some decent signal—at least a hope—that the film will be worth the time. The Web-film-distribution firm that manages to somehow nail this filtration problem will become the YouTube of independent film.

But in the end, even if Web film does take off, the festivals still have one trick the Web will never match. A lot of folks just need to go to Sundance to see everyone else. And while it may puzzle rational-choice theorists, the illogical human attraction to exclusive guest lists and velvet ropes shows no sign of ever disappearing.