It's Sunday, 11 in the morning, and Roger Ebert looks pissed. While I've noticed the superstar critic out and about during this 2000 Sundance Film Festival -- at screenings or on the sidewalk, snapping pictures of Tammy Faye Baker -- this is the first time I've actually seen the guy speak. He's stuck on a panel called "Digital Filmmaking," and he is not jolly, because the world as he knows it is changing. The barbarians, it seems, are at the Park City gates, armed not with pitchforks but with Sony VX-1000 DV camcorders, and the venerable Sundance Film Festival has finally let them in.
Screening for the first time in this make-it-or-break-it 10-day madhouse of art, stars, marketing, and hype are 17 works finished on video, digitally projected. Two of them (Chuck and Buck and Everything Put Together) are part of the prestigious Dramatic Competition. Before Sundance 2000, all movies screened at the fest were "real" movies -- that is, long strips of celluloid running through a projector at 24 frames per second. For those movies shot on video (mainly footage-consuming documentaries like Hoop Dreams), an expensive last step of tape-to-film transfer had to take place for festival acceptance. The acknowledgment by Sundance of digital video as legitimate exhibition format is truly significant. The New York Times wrote last week that Sundance offers "a glimpse into the zeitgeist." If that's accurate, then the indie world we now inhabit is radically different from Sundance '99, just one year ago.
The intent of this morning's official discussion isn't so much to debate the techie details of, say, PAL versus NTSC, but instead to discuss the aesthetic and artistic ramifications, if any, of digital filmmaking. It is a varied group up on the dais, and so is the standing-room-only crowd eager to hear about the next big thing. Ebert sits at a table with actor/director/pretty-boy/auteur Ethan Hawke, who has just completed his first digital feature for $100,000. Hawke waxes philosophical about how the intimacy of DV filmmaking elicits better performances from his actors. Surprisingly, he makes a lot of sense, or at least his enthusiasm for DV is contagious. Ebert, on the other hand, dismisses digital as nothing more than "an attractive buzzword."
Joining Hawke on the pro-DV side is John Kriot from Blow Up Pictures, the company behind Miguel Arteta's Chuck and Buck. Kriot also argues passionately, saying that the lower costs of digital filmmaking allow for more filmmaker freedom. Released from the burden of deep-pocketed (and bottom-line-driven) investors, digital filmmakers in control of their finances also control final cut.
As evidence, Kriot publicly announces (to much applause) the sale of Chuck and Buck that took place the night before, a day after the film's Friday night world-premiere screening. It seems the DV-to-35mm feature film was sold to Artisan, the forward-looking folks behind The Blair Witch Project -- this, Kriot tells the audience, after the filmmakers turned down another offer from a different distributor who expressed concern about Chuck and Buck's "dark" tone and who would buy the film only if they changed the ending. The filmmakers stuck to their principles -- easier to do with a relatively small dollar investment -- and waited for a better offer, artistically speaking. Moderator Godfrey Cheshire, from the New York Press, takes a position between the doom and gloom of Ebert and the optimism of Hawke and Kriot. He wrote a provocative article this past summer on the impact digital may or may not have on traditional filmmaking. Cheshire says the term "digital" conceals the fact that what you're actually talking about is television. The inevitable digital conversion of your neighborhood multiplex, he feels, is nothing more than the creation of large public living rooms with stadium seating, a place where the latest Merchant and Ivory release could conceivably compete with a pay-per-view satellite transmission of Game Seven of the NBA finals.
By this point, I'm ready to leave. The discussion is drifting. I take off as a guy at the door passes out red and black "FILM IS DEAD (www.filmisdead.com)" bumper stickers. After all, there are movies to see. Nuyorican Dream plays that afternoon; shot on consumer Hi8 by ex-San Franciscan Laurie Collyer, the film is a powerful documentary about a Puerto Rican family in New York. Combining intimate family access with an unapologetic critique of larger, structural inequities, the film proves that in the end format doesn't matter -- storytelling does.