The United States may well deserve its reputation as the land of excess; from obscenely large cars to all-you-can-eat restaurants we seem to need the "most" of everything, including the largest number of film festivals known to a single nation. In the city of San Francisco alone, each week is occupied with some new cinematic event, often geared towards an ever-expanding range of narrowly defined interest groups. With consumption of film fare reaching an all-time high, it's no surprise that festival programmers are doubling up. Trevor Groth had been on the programming team at the Sundance Film Festival for eight years when he accepted an invitation to revamp the fledgling CineVegas. Three years along and the festival is taking off, thanks largely to the help of Dennis Hopper, who stepped in as head of the Creative Advisory team this year and has helped to secure some big name tributes. Groth has used this celebrity leverage to create a festival that particularly supports first-time and experimental filmmakers.
Between several unashamedly decadent parties (it is Vegas after all), Jonathan Marlow and I caught up with Groth to talk about his rival programming duties, Sundance's new World Cinema Competition, and the odds of success for unknown filmmakers. With the deadline for Sundance submissions just around the corner (see below), his comments should give all of you independent filmmakers out there a much needed boost of courage.
Tell us a little bit about CineVegas and your involvement with the festival.
I think Las Vegas is such a destination right now for young Hollywood - everyone comes here - so I think that the excuse to come here for a film festival could really work. Sundance is amazing and I think it does what it does better than any other festival. Having been with it for ten years, I think we have our niche. I think it's the premier discovery festival in the world and, as long as we stay true to our mission, I think it will remain that. But I think there's a crop of filmmakers just below - not even just below but just to the side of those filmmakers - that are making these really interesting, innovative films that just don't fit into that niche quite yet. I think that maybe their next films will.
I see about 300 feature films for Sundance over the course of the year and we have such a finite number of slots for films at Park City. There are always films every year that I really respond to and really love that, before I got this gig, I couldn't do much for. I would recommend them to other festivals, I would call certain critics that I thought might respond to them, but now I actually have a real venue to try to give them a life. This is my third year doing CineVegas. The first year I was figuring out what worked and what didn't; the next year I sort of had the structure down. Now, I think we can try to flesh it out by bringing in the really high-profile tributes that we have - Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn, David Lynch, Bruce Conner and others. I think that's going to be an important component in raising the awareness of the festival. We can attract attention from those names and they can come and see these new, relatively small films from these really interesting filmmakers. That's ultimately going to be what defines the festival, more so than the tributes.
It's great to see a lot of younger people, like those at the opening night party, that are just really excited about being at a festival and having their films shown.
Most of the films that we're showing are by first-time filmmakers, so there really is that energy level. They have an audience for their work and it's really infectious. I sort of thrive on it, I ride that adrenaline rush from them and it makes the festival really exciting. When that element combines with the energy in Las Vegas itself, it's a pretty electric ride.
Clearly, attendance will be up at the festival this year over previous years.
We've sold more passes than we ever have before, so it seems like it's working. We've also done more marketing in the city of Las Vegas. To make the festival work, we really need locals to come out and support it. From the first year, we've had the acquisitions people come out, we've had the critics come out, and that's one element, but having the locals come out has been more of a chore. I think that even the film lovers in Las Vegas aren't aware of what this festival means, really. They might just think it's just another big "entertainment thing" on the strip that's just for tourists. I want to break down that notion and let them know it's really there for them.
I think it's really hard with locals because they try to avoid the strip more than anything.
We're lucky to be at the Palms for that reason because, even though it's just a stone's throw from the strip, at least it's off the strip. It's a great venue to use to entice them here. I think that each year we are getting more and more awareness out there, and this year we've gotten better coverage with the review journals and we've done more ads on TV, so I think the awareness is spreading. I can feel a little bit more excitement about the festival within the city.
It's definitely easier when you have high profile guests to bring the locals in because they begin to consider it as a real world class festival.
Exactly. It also freed me up a little bit programming the films - I could look for the films that I really just wanted to show whether they had stars in them or not because our star power was already coming. In years past, I showed a few films that I wasn't in love with because they had some big names in them, so I knew it would get the people into the theater. This year I've chosen some really interesting films that definitely have no recognizable faces in them, so we'll see. Now we ultimately need critics to respond to those films, since they have no stars in them and that means people aren't going to be looking at them that intently. If they get the right critical support and the right reaction here, hopefully we can open some people's eyes and they'll take a chance on them.
So you really want this to be a launching pad for independent film, like Sundance?
I was trying to think about that when I was coming over. There are so many film festivals now, one in every city, that I didn't want to do just another film festival. After programming Sundance for ten years, I get slightly annoyed when people say they want to be "the next Sundance" or they want to be "like Sundance." I really wanted to come here and figure out a new voice for this festival. To a certain extent, I think that we are, but I'm also slipping back into that Sundance model in terms of being the discoverer of these US films, while mixing in some of the bigger stuff. It's a model that really works for this city because we need to take chances on these new, different films but we can go as big as we want with some of the studio stuff. I'm conflicted on that, personally. I think it can work but I don't want to be the next Sundance. I think CineVegas can become defined as something new because of the city we're in. I want to keep striving for that. In a very simple way, its location has been a huge reason why the festival's growing as fast as it is. It's people looking for an excuse to come to Las Vegas. It's so bizarre and it's so strange - everyone is sort of simultaneously enthralled with it and repulsed by it - I love that about it. I love the extreme nature of it and the honest nature of it. It's very open about what it is and it thrives on that.
There are only a handful of festivals that can really pull off that delicate combination of first timers and established filmmakers. Sundance has always done it really well, South by Southwest to a lesser degree. Now this festival is doing it. Then there's also this other element that you're trying to do here that is almost like taking a page from Rotterdam, trying to do an experimental section with James Fotopoulos, Bruce Conner and others. This festival is fairly unusual in that sense.
Yes, it is. I think that in programming festivals, you really have to know your audience and you have to provide a little bit of a balance for them. For me, I respond personally to the offbeat films and a lot of the experimental stuff, but I also know my audience. If I programmed around that entirely, we probably wouldn't have the turnouts that we hope for. I watch movies for a living and I love something about every film I see, whether it's a big studio film or some of Bruce Conner's experimental work. I think that what a film festival can do is introduce different styles to audiences. They may come here to see De-Lovely, the Cole Porter biopic, but then, they might buy a pass and come see The Nest. I think that even people who don't take to it and may never want to see another Fotopoulos film again won't forget that experience. I think it might expand their notion of what cinema is. I think that is something that's positive and I think they'll take something positive away from that.
Just earlier today at our filmmakers luncheon, I saw Bruce Conner shaking hands with Bobcat Goldthwait and they were each wearing cowboy hats. I was like, "It's so weird but it just makes sense." On Wednesday night, we're doing an Eraserhead screening with David Lynch here and we're also showing Gozu by Takashi Miike, who is like the David Lynch of Japan in a sense. Bringing them together, as a film lover - it's like a playground.
Has the involvement of Dennis Hopper this year helped to secure these high profile tributes?
Absolutely, we wouldn't have had them without him. He's been a huge component in making all of this happen. We brought him out last year because we gave the marquee award to him and I think he saw the potential of the festival and really wanted to be involved. So he approached us and said, "Look, I'd love to help out." So he's chairing our advisory board. I had many conversations with him about what we could do to bring out some of the people that he most respected. We made our dream list of people, and he said, "Oh, I'll call them and let's see what we can do." And every one of them said okay.
It's so rare to have David Lynch come out for anything.
David and Jack [Nicholson] don't do this at all. Even Sean [Penn] does it only rarely. Bruce Conner - they tried to do a whole retrospective of his at some museum and he has so many issues that have to fall in place before he can leave his home that basically they couldn't do it. So for us to have him here and be able to do it, it's incredible, and it's all because of Dennis, his personal relationship with these people. They are sort of doing him a favor by coming out.
It's so close as well.
Yeah, I think Las Vegas is really like a suburb of Los Angeles. It's such an easy flight, an easy drive even. I think of ourselves as a real sister city of LA. If we can get the people here from Los Angeles and get the locals in Vegas to come out, then we'll be in good shape.
When Geoff Gilmore is quoted about Sundance, there seems to be a fear that the festival has become co-opted by the studios to launch products and to launch new films. CineVegas has a similar balancing act to follow. How do you keep pushing the boundaries so that you can show experimental work alongside Hollywood films?
I think that we can embrace that notion much more here at CineVegas. I would love to launch specific studio films here. I think we have the resources and the venues to do it and that it could really be out of this world, similar to what Cannes does with some of the big films they launch. But there should always be that balance. The reputation we that have at Sundance is a little more independent. Redford started the festival supporting independent filmmakers and it's really the heart of what Sundance is. I feel we remain true to that, programming-wise. There are a couple of films every year that we end up showing as relationship deals with certain studios. In these cases it's the people that we want to support, more so than the films. Unfortunately, people like to focus on those couple of films and criticize us for them, you know. I stand by our entire program at Sundance. I contest the notion that we cater more towards studio fare.
I don't think it's something that the festival does intentionally. It's something that companies are doing, through parties and the media.
Oh, I see. You mean what's happening in Park City, rather than the festival. That's definitely an issue. I have a feeling it will go in cycles, and that it will burn itself out, There is an ambush marketing problem, where people just come in to capitalize on the media attention that's happening during the festival, to get their names in the spotlight. It'll swell to a point where it's just too gross for everyone and no one will come back - then people will write, SSundance gets back to its roots," and, "It?s back to the films," and stuff like that. Then it will grow again and more and more people will come back. That's out of our control, though. We do what we can to work with Park City in controlling who they rent out spaces to, but to a certain extent, it's out of our control. It'll never become like Cannes. The Cannes film festival is an assault, of media and advertising and everything else.
You mean they're not going to start putting billboards out on Main Street?
Yeah, the sides of the mountain will become a huge ad for Terminator 8.
How does world cinema fit in here at CineVegas?
I found it difficult to get some of the international films that I wanted to. We don't have a lot to offer them right now. There;s a Korean film that I wanted to show called Memories of Murder (Joon Ho-bong, 2003). I think it's a terrific film and I even have a relationship with CG Entertainment in Korea from my work at Sundance. I said, "Well, I'd like to show this film. Does it have US distribution? Maybe we can try to get some interest around it." In their minds, they've never even heard of CineVegas; "Why? It doesn't do anything for us." So I just think we ultimately have to get a little bigger, get a little recognized in the international scene, to open up that section. As soon as we do have something to offer and we attract more press, more international buyers, I'd love to expand that section of the festival. Right now we have just a smattering of films that I love and again it's to introduce foreign films to the audience. Hopefully, as we grow, we will have more to offer to foreign distributors and we can show more and more.
Next year Sundance will add a world cinema competition. In a way, Sundance has always been a reflection of other festivals when it comes to international films. Now, with the competition, it will be more of a premiere festival. Will that be a springboard for CineVegas as well, in as far as you'll establish the idea that films are being acquired outside of Toronto?
I hadn't thought about the implications of that for CineVegas but, as people think of a US festival as becoming more of a premiere place and a place to gain attention for a film, hopefully that will have some carry over effect for CineVegas. I think that as far as Sundance is concerned, it was very important for us to define our world cinema section. We've always looked at it as trying to show really interesting films from all over the world, but the program was very vague. We were showing 30 films under that umbrella, so it was very rare that a film took off from that. By shrinking down the program and doing a competition, the weight of having a film at Sundance now for international films can be what it is for US films. It made sense for us there and hopefully that could be a springboard for other festivals in the United States wanting to premiere international films.
So people have really responded well to the World Cinema Competition?
Yeah, we've had great feedback. In the preparations before, we actually made the change. We asked all the people that we most respected in the international community and in the United States and everyone, pretty much to a person, thought it was a great idea. The only people that were a little upset about it were the other festivals who think we may be trying to steal some premieres. That's the only questionable feedback we've had on it. We're shrinking it down to 16 narrative films and twelve documentaries. It's not that big a number. We didn't do it to try to scoop Berlin, or to try to steal stuff from Toronto or anything like that. We just think that there are enough great films out there that there's enough room for us to do this. To make it more beneficial for the films that we do show, that's really what it's about.
You get a lot of "cold" submissions from filmmakers in the US. Do you get many international cold submissions?
Not as many, because most of the films that we end up selecting are from people that we have relationships with. Throughout the year we are in communication with them, seeing what product they're going to have for us. I think we're up to about 500 cold international submissions right now.
Do you often find things that you would screen?
I love it when we do. We work so hard to, but we usually only take about three of those. Between the five programmers, we're pretty well connected, so it's surprising if we don't know about a film that comes to us. But when you do, that's exciting. It's the same with the US stuff. We're pretty tuned into the productions that are going on now in the US. Actually, in the US, of the 16 films in competition we probably knew of about eight of them. About half were submitted to us and about eight we just found by going through the films. That's the most exciting part. When you put in a tape or a DVD of something you've been excited for, or you've heard about and it's good, then great, it's exciting. But that's not really the fun of programming. The fun is finding something totally cold and taking it to the other programmers and saying, "Here you go, check this out."
The Sundance Film Festival deadline for US and international short films is September 3. US features, documentaries and international features must be submitted by September 24. To be eligible for Documentary and Dramatic competition, US films must be world premieres (and backyard barbecue screenings don't count).