"We had very low expectations," Soderbergh recalled. "I was hoping the film would be a résumé piece; it would get shown and I could meet some people and maybe get another job."
Instead, in a turn of events that has since become the festival's boilerplate success story, "sex, lies, and videotape" became the first Sundance sensation that went on to revolutionize American independent cinema. Snapped up by Miramax, the $1.2-million movie took in nearly $25 million at the box office. In the process, it inspired a generation of underground moviemakers, opened Hollywood's eyes to the commercial viability of indie movies and established Sundance as America's vanguard showcase for quality cutting-edge film.
Now, on the eve of Sundance's 25th anniversary -- which kicks off tonight with a screening of the Claymation feature "Mary and Max" and will feature a commemorative screening of "sex, lies, and videotape" on Monday -- North America's most high-profile, celebrity-packed, hyped-up and slagged-off indie film fest remains a beacon. Even at a time when the number of studio specialty divisions and "mini-studios" devoted to independent movies has drastically withered, Sundance remains a filmmakers' dream factory that has helped manufacture the careers of a who's who of respected directors.
"You go in cloaked in anonymity and with your future a huge question mark," Soderbergh said. "You come out of the end of it and people know your movie and are asking, 'What do you want to do now?' "
Writer-director Kevin Smith worked as a New Jersey Quik Stop convenience store clerk until his low-budget 1994 comedy, "Clerks," went over big at Sundance. He largely credits his career to its exposure. "It kicked open doors and started relationships I retain to this day," Smith said. "It was basically me showing up in Utah and the Mormon God saying, 'I am going to grant you every wish you ever had, including some you never thought of.' "
The Utah/U.S. Film Festival, established in 1978 as a regional affair aimed at giving filmmakers from outside Los Angeles and New York a platform for their efforts, was taken over by screen icon Robert Redford's Sundance Institute in 1985 (hence the 25th anniversary this year). Organizers began to shift the festival's focus toward contemporary films that took storytelling risks. In 1991, the fest was rechristened the Sundance Film Festival in homage to Redford's character in the 1969 western " Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
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And over the years, Sundance has outpaced other fests such as Tribeca, Telluride, Los Angeles and even the sprawling Toronto International Film Festival by establishing itself as the place where a cavalcade of directors unveiled their first filmic efforts: Richard Linklater ("Slacker," 1991), Darnell Martin ("I Like It Like That," 1994), Paul Thomas Anderson (the short "Cigarettes & Coffee," 1993; "Hard Eight," 1996), Darren Aronofsky ("Pi," 1998), Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs," 1992) and James Wan (" Saw," 2004) among them.
"Valkyrie" director Bryan Singer premiered his first feature, "Public Access," at the festival in 1993; it eventually shared a grand jury prize with Victor Nunez's "Ruby in Paradise." Also at the fest that year, screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie concocted the idea for Singer's next feature, "The Usual Suspects," while standing in line for a screening; it premiered at Sundance in 1995.
Although many famous festival alum are content to characterize the festival as a professional launching pad, Singer uses a different metaphor to describe it.
"It's space camp for a career," Singer said. "It pushes you on the pad. The actual thing that launches you into the sky is the movie. But the acclimatization of the film industry began for me at Sundance. The humanization of Hollywood had a lot to do with the meetings I had after 'The Usual Suspects' screened there. It humanizes people seeing them skiing, dressed like [crap], dealing with the same slippery roads and wet carpets as you are."
Outside of Soderbergh and his "sex, lies, and videotape's" epochal splitting of the indie movie atom, nobody embodies the go-for-broke moviemaking ingenuity now commonly associated with Sundance entries more than "Spy Kids" writer-director Robert Rodriguez. He famously raised the $7,000 budget for his feature debut, "El Mariachi," by volunteering for experimental clinical drug testing in Texas.
"We made 'Clerks' for $27,575, but none of us did anything as outrageous as sell blood," said Smith, whose potty-mouthed proto-bromance "Clerks" premiered at the festival two years after Rodriguez's film, recalling the fanfare that accompanied "El Mariachi's" 1992 premiere.
Of course, acceptance into competition at Sundance hardly guarantees a place in the filmmaking firmament. Past Sundance catalogs are littered with movies afflicted by the so-called Sundance curse, i.e. movies that made a big splash at the festival and reached theaters accompanied by huge hype but that then failed to launch at the box office (1999's stillborn comedy "Happy, Texas" anyone?).
But as John Cooper, director of festival programming, sees it, Sundance's purity of intent and vigorous vetting process are responsible for elevating the fest's brand identity.
"We stay dedicated to discovery," said Cooper. "We haven't grown. We're inclusive in our minds, but it's rigorous to get into this festival. It's tough. There aren't many spaces. And we concentrate on creating dialogue around film."
'Focus on film'
And despite the influx of celebrity "gifting" suites, reality TV stars who use the festival as a high-altitude photo-op and the odd pop culture flotsam surrounding official fest business -- the stuff Sundance has become infamous for in recent years -- organizers insist the festival's "focus on film" imperative remains untainted by Hollywood hubris.
"Our biggest growing pain has been the untrue and irregular perceptions of us," Cooper said. "People don't realize we're nonprofit and that our profits go into supporting other programs. They pick up Us Weekly and read about the festival -- I don't necessarily like the celebs that come to Sundance to get their picture in the paper. We're pretty pure. But the perception is that it's a Hollywood thing."
For Bryan Singer, the association of Soderbergh's debut film and Redford's influence still resonate most 25 years into the festival's existence.
" 'Sex, lies, and videotape' made guys like me go, 'If I can get into the Sundance Film Festival, I'll have a shot at a career,' " Singer said. "Add to that Robert Redford, a mainstream movie icon, who's associated with this quintessentially American film festival in this quintessentially American state. That made it the preeminent festival. And I think it's held that crown."