A gorgeous day dawns over Park City – the air is incredibly clear, the sun is a blazing fire in the cloudless blue. A beautiful day for a premiere. We lure Jon away for breakfast before his blizzard of meetings continues – someone found a great restaurant with lots of vegan options. But before long he and Colin head out to make a meeting they’re squeezing in before a series of press interviews. I ride downtown with them to hit a couple of ‘Filmmaker Summits’ at Slamdance, the indie-minded fest that runs concurrently with Sundance. I come in on the tail end of a panel on social networking and indie marketing, a topic which seems to have infinite interest for our community in the last couple of years, and the usefulness of which is still up to debate, at least for me. The panel is articulate and makes good sense. ‘You may not know you’re doing a project next year but when you do, you’ll need those 3000 friends. Create relationships now.’ ‘With your spam, send a large proportion about other people and other subjects.’ ‘Get a Producer of Marketing and Distribution to do all this work, a person to speak authentically about the project, just like you’d hire a DP.’ ‘You need to be constantly on, not just posting once a month, and/or for a finite defined time period.’ ‘Decide what is the film’s voice and POV. Decide early on what you’ll be an expert in.’ ‘Identify your audience, give them value, give them ways to engage with you.’ Next up after that is the screenwriting panel from WGA West (the screenwriter’s union) and the Slamdance screenplay competition, featuring Fred Stoller and Tom Musca.
It feels to a few of us like we’ve been here a week, even though it’s just a few days. It would be nice to take a break right now, in the middle of everything, to clear your head, but actually things are just getting started. But I’ve enjoyed the whole time, and maybe one of my absolute favorite things about the experience was getting to know the other Toynbee investigators, who are all such smart and nice people.
Back at the condo, the hour of the premiere approaches. We mill around, debating a shot of whiskey or not, putting on coats. Soon we’re walking to the theater, a big crowd down the middle of the pavement wet with snow-melt. We’re shuffled back and forth between a heated tent and an atrium off the theater, as staff and volunteers speake into headsets, presumably consulting Bob Redford. We’re all talking and snapping pictures in front of one of those big backdrops that they use for red-carpet snaps. Then suddenly we’re heading in to the theater, except for Jon and the director of the opening short, ‘The High Level Bridge.’ Although we have credentials for this film, we still have to present tickets that we’ve received for this screening. There’s a flurry of activity as we try to settle the question of the reserved seating. There’s a section higher up for the jurors. People are brought in in small groups and fill up the small theater quickly. Doug has told us that it’s pretty good to have a premiere on Monday, so hopefully some of the opening-weekend bigshots are still in town, but the film isn’t going head-to-head with any of the giant hyped juggernauts. It’s one of the smaller screens but tomorrow it’s playing again in the huge Prospector Square space.
After a few more minutes of chaos, a spotlight came up in the front of the theater and Jon headed down with the director of the short. The other director said Hi, and then David Courier from Sundance film festival introduced Jon with an incredibly proud and glowing endorsement of Jon and the film. I think the phrase “soon to be acclaimed filmmaker” was used. He mentioned the fact that Jon had submitted the film cold at the last minute – a sort of ‘it can happen to you’ moment. Then Jon went to the mic.
You couldn’t miss how completely overwhelmed Jon was. He sort of stood there with the mic for a long second, then pulled out his phone and took a picture of the audience. “I just want to capture this moment.” Then he thanked everyone and thanked Sundance for taking the movie. It’s clear when talking to Jon that he feels so fortunate that things have happened the way they have. He knows what his chances were, and how many other filmmakers are out there shooting for the same thing. But no one could have worked harder than he has and sacrificed more. He deserves all of this.
The short film went by quickly, a tonally interesting piece about a bridge in Canada sometimes used by suicidal jumpers. It had a wry, cynical narration and a video grain that enhanced the chilliness of the snow and floating ice, and ended with a camera dropped from the bridge into the river. Then… Resurrect Dead started. Immediately with its soft focus, rich dark colors and questioning music, it draws you into another side of reality, where mysteries reveal themselves to the ready, and strange minds reach out with desperate acts of creativity and communication. My sense, having been in enough festival screenings including my own, was that the audience was gradually wrapped around this movie until it held us all rapt. It was a big relief that there were no technical problems, and the audio and visual were in fact all very high quality. This in itself should be kept in mind by filmmakers considering whether to get that $10K audio mix or professional color correction that people will say is necessary before a fest like Sundance. Jon did it all himself on his computer.
When the film finished, there was a moment when it seemed like a lot of people were streaming out of the theater during the credits. I wasn’t so bothered by it because I had seen that at every other screening, and I think a lot of those people were overprogrammed exactly as Jon has been. But I could imagine it was disturbing to some others in our ‘entourage’. When the lights came up, there were still a LOT of people in the theater craning their necks to see Jon come down to the mic. He thanked everyone again, and then announced to the audience that they had some special guests in the room: Justin, Colin and Steve. There were gasps and a real sense of excitement in the audience, and I could feel it as well, in a kind of cognitive dissonance: parallel to my knowing these people, I had just seen them enact their amazing journey and I felt the audience’s shock that the real people had stepped off the big screen and were now going down to the microphone. The film makes you root for these guys, and revel in their accomplishments, and respect their ethical decisions. You feel in a strange way like you are their friend although they don’t know you, and seeing them suddenly appear in the crowd is like realizing that a good friend was there in the room all along.
The Q&A had such positive vibes – the people in the audience were so engaged with the film, and had really understood the messages it had. An older guy asked a kind of crotchety provocative question about one decision that the investigators made, but someone else had already told the filmmakers that they felt it showed real depth of character. I think most questions were about the subject and content of the doc, as opposed to the making of it, as I expected. Maybe I’m used to audiences made up mostly of filmmakers, or maybe the movie is just that intriguing.
When the Q&A ended, people came down and swarmed around the Toynbee team, and people were instantly next to Justin asking where they could buy his art. He said that he had some with him – he had a tube with a checked-luggage tag still attached, with huge prints rolled up inside. Within a minute he’d sold four. People were hanging on him and the whole team until we were ushered out of the theater by the staff. Outside the sun is setting behind the snowy ski slopes and the air is still and fresh. We walk to a brewpub called ‘Squatters’ (ironically, the movie deals with the fact that Justin was a real-life squatter).
It occurs to me at dinner that this is a film which would appeal to journalists. There are so many scenes of delving into old articles and source materials; parsing different accounts of true events; and even one character’s fixation on the media itself. It’s the kind of epic-feeling investigation that kids dream of before they grow up to be reporters. Could this film save print journalism? Over dinner, someone says that the film critic Kenneth Turan was in the audience. It’s a strange world up here in the mountains.