Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Outtakes" movie column, Jan. 19, 1990 -- Alberto Garcia, film programmer for the 1990 Sundance United States Film Festival

The 1990 festival's poster
It was customary for me to do stories in advance of each year's edition of the Sundance United States Film Festival. (Notice the name still retained remnants of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival.) I interviewed Alberto Garcia in an upper-floor, makeshift warehouse office in northwestern Salt Lake City a week or two before the festival began.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Some might say Alberto Garcia has a dream job. Beginning this year, he's been given the monumental task of selecting the competition films at the 1990 Sundance United States Film Festival. He's the man who has the final say on which films will play, and which ones won't.

Given this level of responsibility, you assume that the man who programs the festival -- who selects all the dramatic and documentary films to compete in 1990 -- would be, shall we say, older.

Then Garcia enters the room to be interviewed, and all preconceived notions go rocketing out the window. All of 23 years old, ponytail falling down his back, black T-shirt and jeans, he looks like a student volunteer, not one of the people running the show.

"Do you plan to write about my age?" he asks later on, prior to revealing it. "Not that I mind, but I just wonder how people will react. I guess if they don't like the films, they'll just blame it on 'that damn kid they hired to pick' " the movies. When I suggest that his age is, indeed, a relevant point and should certainly be included in any story regarding him, he smiles and predicts, "People are gonna wig out when they read that."

Since the dramatic and documentary competitions are the core of the annual festival, Garcia is the man in the spotlight. (In years past, Tony Safford was the program director, but he's moving on to take an executive position at New Line Cinema after this year's festival is over.) If the consensus after the festival is that it was a wash-out, Garcia will likely bear most of the blame. But if it's a hit, he stands to gain. This irony does not escape the young man in wire-rimmed glasses, a former filmmaker who for the past two years has been the festival's print manager and selected films for the "Rogues Gallery" portion of the program.

In fact, he says, he looks forward to potential controversy with relish.

"I hope there is some controversy, some criticism," he says. "That's the only way you can gauge how well you've done."

Much of a programmer's ability to succeed is contingent on the quality of independent films being made. In the past, one or two films a year emerged as hits: "Blood Simple," "Sherman's March," "Smooth Talk," "River's Edge" and "Hairspray," to name a few.

Last year's festival, however, was a high water mark, since at least three of the films (two dramatic, one documentary) came away hits and continued to do well in limited national releases. After 1989's unprecedented success -- the winner of the festival's audience award, "sex, lies and videotape," was named best film at the Cannes Film Festival -- the Utah festival is looked to as perhaps the forum for new independent films.

"It seems it's growing to the extent that there are more people aware of the film festival and its impact in the industry -- because of 'sex, lies and videotape' and 'True Love' and 'For All Mankind' -- the notoriety that it's received in regard to the independent community has grown considerably," Garcia says. "So now more people are submitting stuff to the festival, and more people see it as really important -- that this festival can make or break their career.

"I mean, I don't believe that. Maybe they're just saying that to make me feel guilty."

Of course, no matter what he says, there is a bit of truth to the belief that careers can be affected -- just ask the Coen brothers ("Blood Simple") or Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies and videotape"). So it would seem logical that this responsibility brings with it a load of pressure. Yet Garcia says he isn't worried about it.

"I don't think I ever really thought about that," he says, shaking his head. "It doesn't put any pressure on me. I had an idea of what kind of range of films I'd like to see at the festival. But it's not on the agenda to find the next big Cannes film."

As to the selection process, it's true that Garcia has the final say. But he's not alone out there looking for films. There are committee members in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere who are plugged into the independent community, and are constantly making suggestions about which films Garcia should see.

"What's really good about the committee is that, for me, they're extra ears and eyes. I don't necessarily have to see everything that they say. But I tried ... to see all the films they recommended -- just for the sake of discussion. But they also just give me tips on films that might be of interest or films that they may have heard about."

It's a monumental task when you think about the numbers Garcia is dealing with. He attended the Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals, for example, in addition to screening between 150 and 200 films that were submitted to the Sundance United States Film Festival. And that's not counting the short films; Garcia estimates there are three times as many playing this year as compared to 1989.

"That's a good sign. There are a lot of people making films out there. They fall into different ranges -- there's a lot of mediocre work -- but that's a good sign."

But the most pertinent question to ask a festival programmer is this: What does he look for when selecting films? Garcia pauses, considering his answer, then buys a few more seconds of thought by joking that this subject often sends him off on obscure tangents. Finally, he launches into an answer, hands flying, leaning forward for emphasis and generally infusing each word with a seriousness of tone.

"Usually there are films that you just know are festival (material), and others aren't. So in the back of my mind there's always this agenda -- I don't always want to just show the creme de la creme of the independent world. I want to make sure that female directors are represented, that black filmmakers -- ethnicity and culture -- are represented."

By the sheer weight of numbers, Garcia says, the odds are against these types of filmmakers being recognized, because the preponderance of independent filmmakers are white males.

"There is some really important or promising talent out there, and I just want to make sure I'm not just kind of blindly saying, 'Oh, this one's better than this one.' You have to make sure that range is represented as opposed to that range of bizarre, radical films to really mainstream films.

"The quality is important, but the quality of the image isn't always as crucial as the quality of the ideas. And a female director is going to have a certain sensibility that's going to be unique. And that, in itself, is something worth examining, or actually exhibiting in this case."

As Garcia says, there are a lot of good, competent films in the marketplace that look really nice, and there's really nothing wrong with them. But there's nothing extraordinary about them, either. The festival's slate of pictures, he hopes, offers an alternative.

"The film festival is actually more for the audiences," he says, "because it's a chance for them to see some work that they may not get to see because it won't get distributed. And, effectively, through the popularity of it, like a 'sex, lies and videotape,' I don't know if that would have gotten picked up if that weren't for the festival audiences. In some ways, and this is going to sound really corny, it's a real grassroots kind of populism. The audiences make or break films."

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