Is Robert Redford ready for retirement? Can Oprah do for documentaries what she's done for books?
Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey make appearances at Sundance
At every Sundance Film Festival, controversy gets things going. It's usually political, but this year, at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street in Park City, Robert Redford was asked if he was considering retiring.
"You've just given me an idea," Redford said coyly, with all the sincerity of the con man he played in California Split back in 1974.
That settled, talk shifted to Sundance's 2011 programme and to the future of independent film, which has lagged in the US marketplace, even though submissions to Sundance were at a record high.
Oprah to fund documentaries
A topic in almost every conversation was money. The volume peaked on the first Saturday night of the festival, at a party given by OWN, the new television network founded by television host Oprah Winfrey. The new network had announced that it plans to fund documentary films. Supplicant filmmakers descended on the event like ants at a picnic. "It was worshipful, adulatory," said a film critic in the crowd. Things really heated up when Winfrey told partygoers that "it is my intention to do for documentaries what we have done for books." This wasn't just talk. Ask any American book publisher.
Selling out, or selling up?
Money was also the subject of films at Sundance. One filmmaker who overcame the current slowdown was Morgan Spurlock, the director of the hit documentary Super Size Me (2004), in which Spurlock filmed himself developing serious health problems while eating three meals a day at McDonald's for 30 days.
This time Spurlock was at Sundance with The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a documentary about product placement in films, which was financed by companies that placed their products in his film. The budget was low, $1.5 million (Dh5.5m), but Spurlock was turned down by hundreds of companies - by banks, retail chains, energy and car companies, and by Nike. No surprise, given the attack on McDonald's in Super Size Me.
The key, he said, was to find firms who thought the way he did. A fast-food chain, Sheetz, was among the companies that came on board. Others were Ban deodorant, JetBlue, Hyatt Hotels, Merrell shoes, and POM, the pomegranate juice company that became the lead sponsor for $1m.
The pay-off for the juice company was instant - Spurlock was at the premiere of his film and at dozens of parties wearing a suit emblazoned with the POM logo.
Too commercial for Robert Redford's festival devoted to independent film? Spurlock, nothing if not a branded item himself, certainly triggered a debate, but he's already on to his next film financed by product placement: a documentary about male grooming, starring Jason Bateman.
More on Wall Street - again
Money was also at the core of Margin Call, JC Chandor's feature debut about an investment bank that learns from a man it has just fired (Stanley Tucci) that volatile assets could bring it down.
The drama, which unfolds during a 24-hour vigil in the firm's high-rise, has a dream-team cast: Kevin Spacey as head trader, Paul Bettany as a cut-throat middle manager, Demi Moore as a downsizer and Jeremy Irons as an urbane CEO with ice in his veins who can't read a financial chart.
If you think that the good guys might prevail in this saga, remember this is Sundance, not Hollywood.
When it reaches cinemas this spring, Margin Call will test whether the public has any appetite left for films about the financial collapse.
A film that will test the public's interest in films about Iraq is The Devil's Double, which the New Zealand-born director Lee Tamahori has brought to Sundance. The film tells the story of Latif Yahia, the Iraqi army lieutenant who was ordered in 1987 to be the fiday, or double, for Saddam Hussein's son, Uday.
Since shooting in Iraq was not an option, The Devil's Double was filmed on the island of Malta, with some exterior scenes shot in Jordan.
Creating Baghdad in Malta was one logistical hurdle. Creating Uday and Latif with the same actor was another. Both roles were played by the British actor Dominic Cooper. Even those who didn't like Tamahori's film were praising Cooper. Word was that the actor - under siege from agents with new scripts - had turned off his phone.
At an early-morning screening in Park City, Tamahori acknowledged that the US audience has never rallied to films about the Iraq war. "I'm actually in that camp. I don't go to them any more. Because, unfortunately, they're made from an American perspective, with A-list actors playing American soldiers running around and saving the world. We don't see this as falling into that. We hope that people will see it as a gangster film, which is what it is - and a serious drama," he said. Nonetheless, Tamahori hasn't given up on the US audience. He made his film in English.
The dancing detective
The Devil's Double arrived in Sundance without much prior hype. So did The Bengali Detective, a documentary by the British filmmaker Philip Cox about a private detective in Kolkata, where police corruption is so widespread that citizens count on private detectives to investigate everything from the pirating of goods to murder.
Cox's character-driven doc follows Rajesh Ji, who chases down criminals with a crew of assistants. In off hours, the team pursues Rajesh's dream of dancing on a national talent show. A detective and a dancer? This is the kind of character that screenwriters wish they could invent and that Bollywood and Hollywood yearn for.
Now the industry is paying for that character. The Bengali Detective was acquired this week by Fox Searchlight Pictures, which intends to remake it into a dramatic feature film. "We were charmed by this story of a dedicated husband and self-made detective who dreams big," said Fox Searchlight's president of production Claudia Lewis.
It was a deal that documentary filmmakers rarely see. But the sale has its logic. The Bengali Detective is full of compelling, colourful and quirky stories. Just as important, India is also a film market that Americans have been trying to target for decades. And Mumbai is the site of a new cooperative screenwriters' programme organised by the Sundance Institute and the Mahindra Group.
More from David D'Arcy at Sundance in Park City, Utah, in Arts & Life next week.