Sundance Survival Hints

I’m sitting on free transit in Park City, Utah, watching the warm sun recede over the pristine ski-hilled Wasatch Mountains, talking to young Gabrielle. She’s a blond, brown-eyed, squeaky-clean, super-nice, single-mom Utah native who’s taken three weeks off work to volunteer for the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. I’m on my way to my first screening and am shocked when she asks me to autograph my film postcard for her. I start thinking as I’m inscribing: Should my D be bigger? Is it too legible? Should I write her a memorable note?

Once again, I marvel at the Cinderella story that has led me here. A year ago, sick of watching my acting career crash in fiery flames before getting off the ground, I decided to switch gears and make my first short film. From the opening line of the script to delivering the BetaSP to the Foley guy, I adapted, directed, produced, financed and peddled my little short. Now I’ve ended up at the Ball—Sundance.

And I’m nervous as hell. What should I expect? Will I make a fool of myself? Will I get a three-picture deal? Will the Americans eat me alive and spit me out, laughing maniacally? Any guidance I’d received beforehand turned out to be banal, at best: “God, it’s awful,” or “Just have fun!”

Not to let the cat out of the bag, but I survived the endless barrage of brunches, films, meetings, people and parties! Here are a few helpful hints that I could’ve used going into the most hyped film festival in North America:

1. God’s Gift It’s Not

After the extreme chaos of checking in, getting accreditation and being continually told to take advantage of every single moment, I am bustled off to the difficult-to-get-into Opening Night film. Still reeling from fear and altitude sickness, which has given me a raging headache, I am affronted by an atrocious multi-starred, “independent” and pointless film. Want “Happy Endings”? Let’s start with that film ending! (Although I will cast Lisa Kudrow in all my future projects.) Usually I railover the waste of money and energy that goes into such boring product but this time it buoys me up. There’s crap here too.

2. Swag R Not Us

Sundance is known for its swag. You can imagine how sad I was when I didn’t receive the famed $5,000 bag full of ipods, sunglasses, tim-tuzzlers and womp-wuzzlers that was promised to me by programmers and last year’s filmmakers. I quickly realized that the festival is remodelling its increasingly corporate image by only blessing stars with swag. Which I’m totally OK with—I’m sure Paris Hilton will treasure her Sundance ’05 Palm Pilot.

There was, however, a random sampling of swag at each event. I began to crave them. What will this bag contain? A CD? A scarf? Headphones? The sheer need to acquire was overwhelming, until I actually stole a DVD from the PBS table. Yes, from PBS. Granted, they were giving them away an hour later, but I couldn’t come back then. So, overcome with greed and entitlement, I downshifted into that ancient skill of thievery borne from university days. I know, it’s disgusting. Truly a low point. My advice: beware the power of swag. It’s not important that you have that fifth toque. And you will pay for any indiscretion later. I karmic-ly did when I didn’t go to the Hotel party and found out later they were giving away snowboards.

3. Sincerity Works

I had just finished my eggs with Danish Dogme icon Tomas Vinterburg at the Director’s Brunch when Robert Redford gave his “I know it’s hard but you’re doing the right thing” motivational speech. Actually, it was motivating. Afterwards, along with a throng of others, I lined up to get a brief moment with the cultural icon. I knew that if I didn’t, my mother would disown me.

Perhaps it was his own sincerity that compelled me to thank Bob for making one of his films, which happened to have had a strong effect on me. But the outcome was extraordinary. Instead of nodding graciously and moving on, he stayed to talk about Film and Studios and Canada and Shorts. Then he introduced me, ironically, to Canada’s own Laura Michalchyshyn, some of her fellow Sundance execs, as well as a host of other “players.” I could literally feel waves of jealousy hit my back.

My conclusion is that no matter how big the wig, sincerity is the only road that will gain you entrance without giving you that sticky feeling that you’ve just sold another chunk of your soul. Ok. I hear you asking, ‘What was the movie?’ Should you ever find yourself in an elevator with the great Bob, here is my gift to you, mention: The Milagro Beanfield War.

4. Don’t Just Focus on Your Own Gig or The Most Mortifying Conversation I Overheard at Sundance

INT.—TELEFILM CANADA LOUNGE—DAY GENERAL ROMEO DALLAIRE calmly sits in a wing-backed chair waiting for his book signing to begin. A YOUNG CANADIAN PRODUCER (YCP), who has wandered in, casually strikes up a conversation with the General.

YCP…Yeah, it’s pretty exciting. We have two films here and offers on the table. A real boost for the company. Yeah. It’s been great. Uh, what are you here with?

GEN. DALLAIRE I’m the subject of this movie. Gen. Daillaire points to his visage on the poster directly behind him of Shake Hands With the Devil.

YCP Oh Yeah. What’s that about?

GEN DALLAIRE I was head of the UN Peacekeeping forces during the genocide in Rwanda.

YCP Whoa! That sounds heavy.

*5. Talk to Everybody *

While taking a break from a party, I sat down on the hotel lobby leather couch beside a man working on his laptop. We had a very pleasant conversation about our mutual concerns at the festival. He asked for a copy of my film and I asked for his card. As he walked away I read: Senior VP of Development and Acquisitions at Dimension Films.

*6. Inspiration is Bountiful—And Real *

I saw a doc called Rize about South Central L.A. teens starting a new dance wave while trying to survive gang violence and drugs. The film wasmoving, but not as much as the kids themselves who had just come in from a day of snowmobiling (clearly they had never seen snow) to receive a standing ovation at the Q&A.

Someone inevitably asked, “How will you use this to further your careers?”

One of the boys replied, “It’s been an amazing experience and we’re overwhelmed by the generosity of the people that got us here. But tomorrow I’m getting on a plane. I’m going back to my life where I’m just trying to get through every day.”

Back from the Ball I can sappily say that being at Sundance was the prize itself. But here’s the bodycount: Since my return, I’ve been contacted by one major studio, two independent studios and one management company in the United States. My film also played at the Toronto International Film Festival. Since then, only one Canadian production house, broadcaster or government body has written to me. That letter was from the Canada Council denying me a travel grant. It’s good to be back.

Stronger was Debra Felstead’s directional debut. Coming from an acting background, she was trained at the Neighbourhood Playhouse School in New York and has made an array of film, television and theatrical appearances. She is also a creative producer at The WinWin Picture Company and a co-producer of The On The Fly Festival.

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