x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sundance takes aim at rival Tribeca festival with London dates in 2012

The announcement that the Sundance Film Festival will stage a London event next year is the latest round in their battle with Tribeca for supremacy in the independent film world.

Robert Redford's announcement of a Sundance festival in London next year could have far-reaching implications.
Robert Redford's announcement of a Sundance festival in London next year could have far-reaching implications.

When Robert Redford announced last week that Sundance will have a London edition in 2012 it was the latest salvo in the festival's battle with Tribeca to become the biggest name in promoting independent films in the United States and beyond.

Sundance London will run at the 02, the former Millennium Dome, from April 26-29 next year. The festival will include screenings, live music performances, discussions, panels and other cultural programming. The Sundance Institute will curate the film component.

In a statement, Redford, the founder of Sundance, said: "It is our mutual goal to bring to the UK the very best in current American independent cinema, to introduce the artists responsible for it, and in essence help build a picture of our country that is broadly reflective of the diversity of voices not always seen in our cultural exports."

What he did not say was that in choosing dates at the end of April, Sundance will also divert attention from its rival Tribeca Film Festival, which traditionally takes place at that time of year in New York. This year Tribeca runs from April 20 to May 1.

Both have spent the past few years promoting their brand not just as festivals, but also as distributors of independent films in the United States and the best way for young filmmakers to get a foot in the industry's door. Sundance has long had a film channel and a cinema chain through which it has been showing films that it has nurtured to American audiences.

In its decade of existence Tribeca, founded by Robert De Niro, has emerged as the big competitor to the Sundance Institute. As with the Utah festival, Tribeca has used the event as a base from which to launch its own distribution label and to form partnerships around the globe, the main one being the Doha Tribeca film festival that takes place each November.

In November last year Tribeca announced that its distribution division, Tribeca Film, would release The Bang Bang Club theatrically in the second quarter of this year as well as on Video on Demand and other labels. Other films picked up by Tribeca include Last Night, and this year's festival will be showcasing the films before their US release.

Until the announcement of Sundance London, the senior festival's worldwide activity was usually achieved through filmmaker workshops in places such as India and Jordan. These workshops mainly concentrated on mentoring local talent and incubating projects that would eventually be shown at the January film festival prior to US release.

The battle between the two festivals was starkly put in focus in 2009 when the long-time director of the Sundance Film Festival, Geoff Gilmore, quit to move to New York and take on the role of the chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises. Tribeca announced his arrival several hours before Sundance confirmed his departure.

Sundance appointed Keri Putnam as the executive director and he made it a priority to expand the reach of the festival both within North America and overseas. The festival merry go-round was completed when the former artistic director of Tribeca, Peter Scarlet, took on the equivalent role at the Abu Dhabi International Film Festival and John Cooper, Gilmore's former deputy, was promoted at Sundance. All of a sudden, Sundance's position at the forefront of the film festival circuit in America was being challenged by its New York rival.

The latest battle stems from the demise of distributors of independent film in the US. Even before the 2008 credit crunch sped up the process, studios were closing the divisions they had opened in the wake of success through Miramax, the leading US producer and distributor of independent films, in the 1980s and 1990s.

The misfortunes of these distributors began when Miramax was sold to Disney. Even the Weinstein brothers, the founders of Miramax, have struggled to find hit films for their new operation, The Weinstein Company. The paradox is that at the same time, the number of people going to the cinema was rising, but it seemed that audiences were willing to spend their money only on blockbuster films with spectacular special effects. The art-house market was in decline and films were no longer being given time to build word of mouth or find a market as cinema chains were judging the independents using the same criteria they applied to studio productions: how much they made on their opening weekend.

Another result of this was that the price of independent films came crashing down. No longer could directors go to Sundance and expect to make a killing on sales. Companies such as IFC changed their strategy and would buy products more cheaply and look to release films on Video on Demand rather than into theatres. From this crisis in independent film, both Tribeca and Sundance saw an opportunity to make use of their brand leverage to become major players in the exploitation of independent film, not just in America but also around the globe.

Tribeca had initially been viewed as a festival struggling to define itself, after it was set up in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York. The global strategy, the digital distribution ventures and the increase in emphasis on building funds for filmmakers have all ensured that with Gilmore as its head it has established an identity as a rival to Sundance.

What may have taken Sundance by surprise is how quickly Tribeca became a major player. Thus when the market for independent films changed drastically over the past decade, Sundance had an unforeseen American rival to contend with. The response from Sundance was to expand its reach away from just American independents and to look at more global fare. Now the irony is that Sundance is seen to be copying Tribeca. The New York festival created a satellite festival in Doha, at least in name, in 2009. Sundance is doing the same, in London, and with a choice of dates that suggest the gloves have definitely come off in the battle for festival, marketing and distribution supremacy.