On Sundance Walkouts…

The last time I was able to attend the Sundance Film Festival was 2012 and it was a great year for smart, offbeat films. One film I was excited for was Rick Alverson’s The Comedy because I had heard tell of its brutal awkwardness, crudeness and overall genius. I was stoked, that’s my jam. I settled into my chair at a press and industry screening for the film as a Sundance programmer reminded us all to turn off our cell phones and then the lights dimmed. Press and industry screenings (or, P&I’s) don’t have filmmakers or actors in attendance, it’s just the film.

No sooner had the crowd settled in and the sponsor reel ended than a guy rushed into the theater, popcorn and soda in hand and sat down next to me. He had barely made it in. Then the film started and images of half-naked men cavorting about and spraying booze everywhere spooled out before us. Then, a close-up of a chubby ass crack gyrating in tighty-whitey undies came onscreen and cheap beer is spilled all over the exposed tookus. The film then cuts to star Tim Heidecker who has his penis tucked between his legs ala Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs and at that instant, the very same guy who had barely made it into the screening on time got up and walked out. I just recalculated the time of the walkout (The Comedy is on Netflix Instant and you should watch it if you haven’t!) and it came out to 42 seconds. At 42 seconds this dude knew this movie wasn’t going to be for him so he left.

The guy never said anything as he quietly removed himself so I don’t know if he was offended by the nudity, if he was working for a distributor who knew at that moment his boss would never go for this as a buy, if he had explosive diarrhea of if he was in the wrong screening. He just left. No harm, no foul.

Cut to last night as I’m headed to bed after keeping up on all the 2016 Sundance excitement via Twitter when I see film journalist Jeff Sneider of TheWrap  has publicly tweeted his disdain for Swiss Army Man, the buzzed about indie drama starring Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe that had its public premiere last night. Said a scorned and twitter verified Sneider of the film to his 19k followers, “Counted at least 30 walkouts within first 30 mins of the unwatchable SWISS ARMY MAN before I bailed myself at 40-minute mark. DO NOT SEE IT.” This pissed me off and although I’ve tried to manage hair-trigger reaction tweets better than I have in the past, I called him out on it.

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Granted, and as Sneider soon pointed out to me, it’s his life, his taste and his Twitter account and he wasn’t posting via his employers feed and he has every right to his opinion. He totally does. But what stuck in my craw at the time was that he felt the need to blast a small, independent film that has yet to earn distribution by not only announcing his walkout via social media but also encouraging people not to see the film. It felt like someone crowned him King of Sundance and everyone should heed his tastes and opinions and boycott a film he hadn’t even bothered to finish watching. Later, he defended his stance to HtN and other people who called him on it with some martyrdom talk like:

“I’m a guide here, pointing people in right direction. Glad I can help steer people away from bad movies. I won’t be bullied into admiration” and “There’s this mistaken idea that audiences owe the filmmakers something. We don’t. The burden of proof is on them. Dazzle me… or, don’t” and “So if you don’t like my brazen honesty, here’s what you can do: Go. Fuck. Yourself. ‪#MakeBetterMovies” and the best one, “I love people who criticize how I choose to spend MY time at a festival. The mock outrage on behalf of terrible filmmakers. You’d leave too!” Oh, Jeff. I’d love to see you tell the filmmakers this stuff to their face but alas, that’s what the internet is for. But I digress.

Cut to this morning when, and credit Sneider and other people who gloatingly publicized the walkouts at the premiere, the press and industry screening of Swiss Army Man was one hot ticket. HtN has Mark Bell covering the fest for us and although Swiss Army Man wasn’t really on his (or, our) radar, he made it a point to get to the screening at the crack of dawn because there was some divisiveness going on. Mark’s a seasoned fest person and a solid writer so kudos to him for following up on (and staying through!) the film. Since then I’ve had 4 verifications that there were zero walkouts at this mornings screenings. So, what gives? I have a pretty good idea.

Having attending Sundance over 15 times I know it, and other big fests, pretty well. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s the festival really grew large due to big celebrities dipping a toe into typically awful independent films. Sundance became the place where (for example) then “it-girl” Renée Zellweger could star in a little film like A Price Above Rubies and Sundance could reap the benefits of having her at the step and repeat for the premiere of her film. At first the attention created early on for these celebrities descending on Park City was a good thing for small indies with no big “stars” because when folks couldn’t get into screenings of “big indies,” they would invariably go see smaller films and make a discovery they may not have made previously. But eventually the festival became all about celebrity culture, star sightings, gossip and huge money deals for mediocre films. It became a chore to attend due to declining quality in programming as well as a real sense of not being sure what the purpose of the fest was any longer. Then, something budged and in many ways it saved the festival by returning it to being (mostly) about creative, thoughtful, challenging independent films.

What happened was Sundance Head Programmer Geoff Gilmore left Sundance and went to Tribeca, hoping to push that festival to the heights he pushed Sundance to. Taking over for him were two programmers that frankly, everyone loved and respected greatly for their excellent taste and willingness to program offbeat, challenging films in John Cooper and Trevor Groth. From there Sundance slowly started reverting back to small, weird films with less bonafide star power (not always) but the looky-loos, hangers on and hack journalists who want to catch a glimpse of their favorite celebrities haven’t fallen completely away which brings me back to last nights premiere of Swiss Army Man and its rampant walk outs.

As noted, the film stars Daniel Radcliffe who remains a huge star from his Harry Potter days even though his post-Potter films have been pretty hit and miss. The film also stars the excellent Paul Dano as well as the lovely and talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead and it was the big Friday night screening at the largest theater in Park City, the Eccles. These premieres are made for star-studded events and the movies are almost secondary to most people in attendance. Yes, that’s a generalization and I’m sure no one wants to sit through a turd but I also know well over half the people there are there to catch a glimpse of Daniel Radcliffe. So, after the red carpet walk and the introductions were made, the movie rolled and it was apparently really, really weird and actually features Radcliffe as a corpse that farts a lot. This did not sit well with the crowd.

Now, I haven’t seen the film so I can’t speak to the nuances and overall story but I can say that if you went to that screening because as a kid you saw every Harry Potter movie at midnight before it opened and love you some Daniel Radcliffe, you were likely freaked out by seeing him playing a farting corpse. You simply didn’t get it. And if the Harry Potter movieverse is your idea of high quality film (and I love the films so, that’s not a diss) seeing Radcliffe out of his comfort zone put you out of your comfort zone and you probably left. I do not blame you. Hell, I’d love to know how many doting parents brought their Potter loving kids to this screening and made a quick exit when they realized this wasn’t a kid movie.

Add to this the many big time distributors who were there to hopefully later do battle for the rights to the film. These people are salesmen and distributors, quality of a movie is almost secondary to “can this movie make money?” It’s probably not a stretch to say Swiss Army Man isn’t likely to be a huge moneymaker and is more of an art film. Sure, whoever eventually snags the rights to it will undoubtedly do an excellent short scam, getting Radcliffe lovers to see their hero doing something “weird,” but this doesn’t seem to be the kind of film that will generate buckets of cash or awards and that’s what many people go to Sundance seeking to buy.

I could get even more “inside baseball” on this (for instance, many people in town to buy are more apt to see a Friday night screening of a film, party and network into the wee hours and not see a 9am screening) but I’m hoping you’re getting my point. People walking out of Swiss Army Man at a gala premiere are not really the movie going, or better, Sundance attending audience at large. They are there for business or for gawking. Maybe they’re there as the press to get a jump on being FIRST! with a review or a click-baity photo of a Q&A with a wooly scarved Radcliffe and Dano in scruffy beards. Whatever the case, I don’t think they were there to see a challenging film and when challenged, they walked.

All that being said, I still take some issue with Sneider throwing Swiss Army Man under the bus, especially when proudly declaring he left halfway through. Granted, this is better than lying about staying and throwing a film under the bus but, why the need to announce your walkout and hatred for “awful filmmaking” to the world? Why attack 2 writer/directors (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) who just made their first feature film? Film festivals are made for new voices to get seen, not seasoned vets to get noticed. Further, his defenses (against many people saying worse things that I did) are truly weak and make me question what he’s even doing at the festival as a journalist and a reporter. Sneider’s no dummy and often provides quality and unique insights to a film but I guess I expected more from him than a drive-by twitter diss like, maybe some analysis of what made it bad. I also feel as though the mostly positive reviews coming forth speak to the fact that unique, arty and weird movies are back at Sundance and this is a good thing, even if it’s not for everyone.

Anyway, the reason for this entire article is to remind people that walkouts really don’t mean anything at a large film festival like Sundance. If anything they speak to the fact that programming is becoming more challenging and far reaching towards new visions and ideas rather than lukewarm retreads of old stories featuring hot celebrities getting into the “real acting” trenches. If you want to see those types of well worn, mentally friendly films that’s fine but they will soon be available at your house so why bother trekking to a film festival if you don’t want to see something fresh and exciting? Only you can answer that question.

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