PARK CITY, UTAH – When the house lights came up after a screening of the much-hyped “Manchester by the Sea” at the Sundance Film Festival, Jesse Bishop wiped away tears. He was touched by its fictional tragedies but also recognized what a coup it would be if he brought the movie home to Minnesota.
As programming director of the Twin Cities’ biggest film festival, Bishop visits Sundance with the prospector’s eagerness that once made this location a thriving silver mining town.
“There are so many great nuggets here we want the opportunity to pluck and present,” said Bishop, who hoped to discover at least a dozen films on the silver screen to add to the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival in April.
Since it started in 1985, Sundance has grown into independent cinema’s most powerful institution, rivaling the big studios in launching long-term movie careers. It is a bustling marketplace, a free-for-all of A-listers and Hollywood hype that draws kingmakers, treasure seekers, movers and shakers.
Among that circle of influence is a posse of Minnesota players and expatriates, using the sprawling event to market local attractions there or to draw film talent back to our home state.
Some Minnesotans visiting last week’s festival made their home base in an art gallery hung especially with Midwest landscapes. The state’s Film and TV Board wasn’t looking for films, but to capture production dollars. They settled in to publicize Minnesota’s “Snowbate” economic reimbursement incentive.
The current program, with new added returns for films shot on the Iron Range, could help the state be rediscovered after its 1990s heyday, according to Troy Parkinson, the board’s director of production. A first-time visitor to Sundance, he threw a see-and-be-seen party for almost 500 industry visitors.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to get Minnesota on the minds of those who might be interested in production,” Parkinson said. “It’s an enticing place. Many are getting their first chance to see what we have to offer in the four seasons. They’re pleasantly surprised, saying, ‘Wow. I didn’t know this was here.’ ”
Informing producers last year about local attractions was crucial to bringing the Woody Harrelson comedy “Wilson” to film across the metro area last spring, he said. “We took the team all around and showcased why this place would work.”
The board’s grass-roots campaign, he said, also aims at showing the Minnesota Legislature that film production is “a viable industry, that there are people working in it and they will bring their projects here if it exists.”
Loving flyover land
Just as there’s fierce competition for dollars, it can be a fight to bring the best films screened at Sundance to local audiences. Rick Vaicius, founder of the Flyway Film Festival in Stockholm, Wis., has learned to zero in on what he knows will connect. This year he focused on a slate of environmental documentaries that hold special interest for viewers “in our part of the world.”
Once he procures a film, its makers often travel with it. Filmmakers like coming to Flyway, a surprisingly sophisticated event in flyover land, “because our audiences are very knowledgeable. They ask great questions” during post-screening discussions. The festival’s semirural setting allows moviemakers to hang out with their peers enjoyably and inexpensively.
Those selling points have worked well: Flyway received 2,444 entries seeking a place in the lineup last year, Vaicius said, “an extraordinary number.”
For 17 years, Sound Unseen has offered a Twin Cities regional festival celebrating music and film, recently ranging from a Nigerian remake of “Purple Rain” to an Elvis Costello documentary. For half that time, organizer Jim Brunzell has fueled the showcase with Minnesota premieres of films he spots in Park City.
“There will definitely be some films we get from Sundance,” he said. “The point of the investment is to be here to talk to people, to network to find out what other people are seeing that is good, what to avoid.” The experience, he said, is like attending a crammed farmers market with friends whose judgment he trusts.
Playing Sundance’s tune
It was a similar passion for music and film that has sent Chandler Poling to the creative slopes of Park City for the past six years. The son of the Suburbs’ founding member Chan Poling, he has been representing musicians in the movie industry through the L.A.-based communications firm he founded to honor his hometown, White Bear PR.
“I came as an experiment, with no expectations,” he said. “I didn’t expect to make a huge splash, and found immediately that there was business to be found.”
Last year Poling connected with composer Dustin O’Halloran, creator of the nostalgic theme music that blankets the Amazon hit series “Transparent,” and ran his successful Emmy campaign.
“The goal is to get the most buzz, the most tweets,” he said. “That festival experience is really important to a film,” which lives or dies on exposure. Among White Bear PR’s clients at present is the composer for industry veteran James Schamus’ directorial debut, “Indignation,” based on a novel by Philip Roth. Its soundtrack captured considerable attention at Sundance, with Vanity Fair’s review praising the “judicious placement of Jay Wadley’s looping, foreboding score.”
It could be that Poling has another successful awards campaign ahead of him.
While Poling’s mining mission seemed to be turning up gold, the Film Society’s Bishop is sifting through several potential targets he hopes to carry home. Among the baker’s dozen films he’s holding in his sights is that handkerchief soaker “Manchester by the Sea.”
“We hear from many Sundance visitors that they actually prefer catching those films here [in Minnesota] where the lines are shorter,” he said.
And there’s one more big benefit of seeing these types of movies at Bishop’s April festival: “The weather is warmer.”