After a buzzy showing at Sundance this year, it was widely assumed that Escape From Tomorrow, the debut feature from writer/director Randy Moore, would never see the light of day outside the festival circuit, but not for the same reasons that most critically admired indies suffer the same fate. For one, there was the whole shooting-scenes-of-sexual-deviance-and-demonic-possession-illegally-on-Disney-property thing. And for two ... I mean, I don't really feel like there's a need for me to list a two. (Here's the part where I remind you that Grantland and ESPN are, yes, owned by Disney.)
As far as copyright and concerns of that ilk, festivals are generally considered a legal neutral territory, mostly because no money is officially coming to the producers and filmmakers; it's all free screenings (after your plane ticket, chalet rental, and lift pass, of course) and free speech. Of course, the whole point of getting your film into a festival like Sundance is the hope of getting distribution, and ideally untold millions, which seemed to be the logical point at which Escape From Tomorrow's story would end. What distributor with any kind of self-interest, particularly one at the pay grade of a micro-indie like Tomorrow, would take on such blatant litigation bait for a multi-billion-dollar corporation, for a film that would probably run at about 100 art house theaters for a couple weeks and maybe pick up some VOD cash before becoming a Wikipedia footnote? Moore shot his movie on the cheap, made a little noise, fueled the film blogs for a few days, and then took his newly boosted reputation back home to start writing his next film, right? Nope!
Back on Main Street. Park City during Sundance is a cheery mountain town gone savage, quaint stores turned into pop-up Acura dealerships and Segway depots. All the usual high Western kitsch is here — dealers of fine alpaca coats, “Artist-Driven” boutiques, jewelers, real estate agents and ski butlers and frontier-themed bars. But every third door is unmarked, cryptic, guarded by a man in an earpiece. At night a whole devil’s playground of terrible nightlife emerges: Tao Park City, where Nas played Saturday night, is here; so is New York’s the Westway, and something called NK, by evil clubbing genius Nur Khan. Cab drivers speak of this stretch of road with the resignation of men who have been forced to accept that at some point they will either find themselves in a backseat-vomit-fueled traffic jam or be the source of said traffic jam.
It’s Friday night, and we’re in a mansion high atop a mountain somewhere in nearby Deer Valley, the kind of place that doesn’t have an address. A cab driver takes me over. He reminisces about the old days at Sundance. “I’ve had some crazy times, man.” I ask him what he means. “Oh, you know: big parties, hot tubs, cougars.” He’s a local, remembers sending the yellow cabs that drive up from Salt Lake City during Sundance on wild goose chases around town. But GPS put an end to that, he says, sadly.
Which I’m grateful for tonight, actually: It’s all we can do to find the hotel at the base of the mountain, where in the lobby I give my name to a waiting factotum, who dispatches another factotum, who brings another car around. I get in and we drive for a while, heading up the hill. There is no address because this road is private: We pass through one gate manned by a security guard, and then another, pairs of leaping deer glinting off the ironwork. Up the mountain we go, making lefts and rights at seeming random, speeding up in the dark.
The first humbling is the airport. Salt Lake City International, around 11 a.m. Baggage claim has been repurposed into a holding pen — L.A. blondes in fur-cuffed ski jackets, men wearing big puffy coats with strange, sun-like logos on the sleeves. Cowboy hats, bright pink vests, Burberry bags. All the women’s boots are huge and excessive and trimmed with what seem like entire menageries of tiny, hirsute animals. We're all going to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, up in the mountains around Park City, Utah, and none of us looks like we belong here. On Tuesday, the Park City Medical Center announced that in response to a nationwide flu epidemic, it would be handing out more than 5,000 free bottles of hand sanitizer. “PCMC brass say the quaint mountain burg will become a giant Petri dish — with festival-goers shaking hands, riding public transportation and unknowingly spreading germs,” The Hollywood Reporter explained Tuesday. Here at the Salt Lake City International Airport, no one is shaking hands.
To get from here to there, you take a shuttle. You give a man at a desk money, he takes your name, then tells you to get into the holding pen and wait until you hear your name. This is really how it works. You stand there and they yell out names. (What’s up, Gawker film columnist Tim Grierson? We haven’t met, but I know you’re here.) This goes on for an hour: film acquisitions specialists, movie bloggers in branded swag knit caps, innocent bystander skiers alike, all ceremonially named for the entertainment of the waiting mob, then escorted outside onto a waiting flu-van with 11 other strangers. Up the mountain you go. This is the humbling. This is where it begins.
At this year's Sundance Festival, Beasts of the Southern Wild -- a lo-fi fantasy shot in Louisiana about a young girl surviving a storm directed by first-timer Benh Zeitlin -- was an instant hit. It ended up winning the Grand Jury Prize, and then getting scooped up by Fox Searchlight for a couple of million dollars, and then getting a June 27 release date -- and, now, a couple months before us peons that don't get invited to fancy movie festivals get to see exactly what all the hype is about, a trailer has been released.
Watching great movies is always a joy—but knowing about great movies before your friends do, that's priceless. After bingeing last week at the Sundance Film Festival (and its underrated sidekick, Slamdance), I can now expound on the next wave of cinematic treasures months before they hit the local art-house theater, casually destroying any friends who believe their cultural knowledge to be superior to mine. Study my list of Park City favorites below, and you can be the one with insider info, like your pal who dissects high-school recruiting sites, running his mouth all day about some sophomore cornerback with 4.3 speed out of Tupelo, Mississippi, or the guy at work who's down with obscure indie bands six years before they open for Wilco.
Since Bachelorette premiered Monday night at Sundance, it’s been plagued with a singular obsession from the media: Is it, or is it not, like Bridesmaids? Trying to figure this out might warp your brain. Check it out: