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Sundance 101
It's a non-stop stream of parties, screenings and celebrity sightings, as Charm City film folks (plus a few who just want to have fun) descend on the tiny burg of Park City, Utah.
by Brian Michael Lawrence

The line of well-wishers is six-people deep to congratulate Easton, Md., filmmaker Doug Sadler upstairs at the Riverhorse Cafe. The trendy restaurant in the heart of downtown Park City, Utah, is the scene of a pre-screening reception for Sadler’s film “Swimmers,” and the Maryland Film Office is co-sponsoring the party.

A slew of Baltimoreans are at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (which kicked off on Jan. 20 and ran for 10 days), and I wanted to tag along and see how our local film folks mingle with the stars and deal-makers.

So I find myself late on a Saturday afternoon in the crowded, overheated second floor of the Riverhorse, watching the Maryland film people in action. A tent has been set up overlooking the crowds below on Main Street. I notice a buffet stacked with little sandwiches and crudites with dip, but it’s now way too crowded to even think about getting close enough to grab a plate. This afternoon I’m getting my first lesson in basic film reception etiquette: forget about eating, shake hands with as many people as possible, and answer the questions “Where are you from? Who are you with?”

And I’m learning from a master: Maryland Film Office director Jack Gerbes. Gerbes, 51, is the “face” of Maryland to most of the filmmaking community (sorry, John Waters). He’s our ambassador to the world in getting movie and television projects to come to Maryland. There’s almost no one he doesn’t know here, and clad in his standard uniform of blue jeans, dark sweater and film-themed baseball cap (on this trip, frequently “Triple-X” or “Head of State,” two recent Maryland-filmed productions), he can meet-and-greet with the best of them.

At some point, I push through the crowd and get my face-time with man-of-the-moment director Sadler, and ask him how much he spent to make “Swimmers.” He flashes a sheepish grin. “I would tell you,” he says, “but we’re not allowed to reveal our budgets while the bidding is going on.” This is standard Sundance dealmaking etiquette: since active bidding for rights is going on all the time, film budgets are not disclosed so as not to influence what studios might be willing to pay.

Sadler’s film, shot on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in the fall of 2003, deals with the unlikely relationship between a lonely young girl and a desperate young woman, set against the backdrop of a seaside fishing village. After the reception, many in this crowd will head to Park City’s town library for the premiere screening. (Most of the seven festival screening venues are true cinemas, but even the library and the high school auditorium are pressed into service during Sundance.)

Later, after the well-received screening and 30-minute question-and-answer session with the director and crew, I get my first taste of Sundance night life. They tell me that the tiny town of Park City (pop. 8,000) swells to some 45,000 over the course of the festival, and I can see the result firsthand. Main Street is lined with bars and restaurants, and there’s a line outside of almost every one. At some of the more popular ones, like the Monkey Bar, Marquee and the VW Lounge, they’ve had to rope off part of the street itself to accommodate the overflowing sidewalks, and the traffic on Main Street is in a state of permanent gridlock.

We duck into the dark lower level at Bandit’s Grill & Bar to kill some time until the midnight screening of “Hard Candy,” an intense, two-character drama about a cat-and-mouse relationship between a pedophile fashion photographer and a 14-year-old girl he meets via an Internet chat room, up the block at the Egyptian Theater. By the time the Q&A session with the director wraps up, it’s 2:30 a.m. and I’m off to bed.

Sunday starts with the Slamdance Brunch, a typically overcrowded meet-and-greet held at Cafe Terigo on Main Sreet. Slamdance is a film festival-within-a-festival, where independent films of a decidedly edgier ilk are screened. Over a spread of fruits, baked goods, waffles and eggs souffle, folks from the Maryland Film Office (which is a longtime sponsor of Slamdance) mingle in the crowd of 150 or so. Gerbes gives a short welcome speech, then dives in to work the crowd. “I have a definite agenda when I come into one of these parties,” Gerbes tells me later. “I make a beeline for the director and producers, trying to see what their next project is going to be, to see if there’s a fit for us. It comes down to sales— that’s what we are— salesmen. Get in there and close the deal.”

Last year, film and television production injected $75 million into Maryland’s economy; the year before that was an all-time high, bringing in $130 million— mainly owing to the production of the John Travolta film about the lives of firefighters, “Ladder 49.” In the past, Maryland would’ve ranked “definitely in the top 10” among states with the most film production, according to Gerbes. But because other states, like Louisiana and Pennsylvania, have stepped up their monetary incentives (mostly tax breaks and rebates) to filmmakers in the past few years, Maryland’s rank has fallen somewhat, currently placing within the top 20.

By attending festivals like Sundance, Gerbes and his crew hope to convince filmmakers to bring their productions to the Free State. Maryland is one of the higher-profile state film commissions in evidence at Park City. By sponsoring and co-sponsoring several events— like the Slamdance Brunch, the “Swimmers” party and the Variety “Top Ten to Watch” party— the Maryland Film Office’s smiling red crab mascot (part of its logo) starts to become ubiquitous. “I just want to get on their short list,” says Gerbes, referring to the producers with projects in the offing.

Aside from Sundance, the Maryland Film Office folks also usually attend the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival. Typically, the payoff can take a couple of years. “Three years ago, I was at a party for the film ÔAmerican Splendor’ in a private house at Sundance, and I met the woman who produced ÔReal Women Have Curves,’” says Gerbes. They were reintroduced at Cannes the following year. Recently, when it came time to line up her next film production, she thought of Gerbes. “But she couldn’t remember my name,” he says. “She did remember our crab, though, and said, ÔGet me the Crab Dude.’ It’s all about branding.”

Back at the brunch, I spot some familiar Baltimore faces, including developers Bill Struever and David Tufaro, Urbanite publisher Tracy Durkin, Donald Toms of Discovery Health Channel and Mike Styer, former Maryland Film Office director.

Two more members of the Baltimore film scene, Skizz Cyzyk and JR Fritsch, are in Park City as projectionists for Slamdance. Fritsch is a member of the Slamdance Shorts Jury this year, and Cyzyk is a past jury member and serves on the advisory board.

And I also run into Hannah Byron, from Baltimore’s film office, and ask for her take on the scene. “I’m the Sundance virgin here,” she says, clearly relishing the fast pace of the festival. “This is my first time out, and I’m just trying to see everything and get my footing.”

In her new capacity heading up the Division of Film, Video & Television for Baltimore City, she’s still meeting a lot of people and making contacts that she’ll add to her Rolodex when she heads back to Charm City.

Byron is having dinner with friends tonight. Catherine Batavick and Elizabeth Carven from the Maryland Film Office are headed to the Discovery Channel party being held at the downtown Asian restaurant, Wahso, and the rest of the group will do a brief stop-by at the Slamdance Opening Night party at Club Suede. I have tickets to a screening of “The Jacket,” starring Adrien Brody, but alas, no invitation to the after-party. Bummer.

On Monday morning, I’m buying a newspaper at a small bookstore on Main, when the short guy ahead of me suddenly cuts out of line and tells me to go ahead. He looks familiar; it later dawns on me that it was designer Todd Oldham. Here comes Lesson No. 2: Celebrity sightings are No Big Deal. They’re so common here, especially at the after-parties, that you become pretty nonchalant about it. Throughout the week, other sightings will include Glenn Close, David Schwimmer, Adrien Brody and Keanu Reeves. Apparently the Hilton sisters have been spotted everywhere, wearing their Ugg boots and chattering on their (pre-hacked) cell phones. But, alas, not by me.

In the late morning, I meet up with Byron for coffee at a crowded art gallery-cum-Starbucks, and then we’re off to meet up with Gerbes’ crew for a pow-wow lunch at the Bangkok Thai restaurant a few blocks away.

Byron is particularly excited because MovieMaker magazine has just released its annual list of “Top 10 Cities for Moviemakers,” and Baltimore is ranked at No. 9.

Talk turns to the incentives that states can offer to lure film production to their streets. Currently, film productions shot in Maryland get an exemption from the 5 percent state sales tax, but a proposed bill would allow a 50 percent rebate to filmmakers for wages paid during production. “It’s not just about how we [Maryland] can double for any kind of location anymore,” says Maryland Film Office’s Rick Schaeffer, managing director for film, television and sports. “Now other places can offer a film that has a $10 million budget incentives to shoot there that will pay them back $1.5 million,” he says. “That makes the difference between them shooting here or not.”

Recent Maryland losses include a production called “Annapolis,” a Disney film about life at the U.S. Naval Academy that will be shot in Philadelphia instead. And now that the Broadway musical “Hairspray” is being adapted to film, the question of whether the production will actually shoot in Baltimore is a real one. “They may decide it’s cheaper just to shoot it somewhere else,” says Byron. “How sad would that be?”

The group’s banter rises above the table laden with dishes of Pad Thai and Thai iced tea. It’s always a treat for the Baltimore group to reunite with Ken Haber, the jovial, bearded, Kabbalah string-wearing manager of the Maryland commission’s Los Angeles office. Maryland is one of the few state film commissions to maintain an L.A. operative, employing Haber on a part-time basis to be closer to the action in Tinseltown. “With what we do, it’s all about relationships,” says Batavick. “And with Ken being on the scene in L.A., when he calls someone, his calls will get returned. And it’s not by someone who’s eight people down the chain from who you want to talk to.” As Haber puts it, “A call from me means at least a lunch.”

At 6 p.m., I join Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival, at the Eccles Theater for the premiere screening of “Nine Lives,” a new film by Rodrigo Garcia. The 1,300-seat auditorium is packed, and stars of the film, including Glenn Close, Robin Wright Penn, Aiden Quinn and Mary Kay Place, are filing into their seats after having run a gauntlet of reporters, including Roger Ebert, outside.

Dietz hovers near the rear, and as director Garcia files past on his way to the front, he spies Dietz and leans over to greet him. Garcia’s first film, “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her,” was developed in the Sundance Labs, which were started by Robert Redford even before the Sundance Festival. Held at the Sundance Resort outside of Park City, the yearly labs offer budding writers, filmmakers and producers the chance to develop projects with high-level artists away from the business-pressure side of film. “We gave him the Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship in 1998— we were the first money in,” Dietz tells me. As a result, they received a film credit, and the first opportunity to screen the film at the Maryland Film Festival.

Later that night I meet up with Baltimore interior and set designer Tiffany Zappulla at the Purple Sage, a chic nouvelle- Southwestern eatery on Main Street. She’s in town to see the debut screening of “The Salon,” a comedy about a black hair shop that was filmed in Baltimore in 2003. Zappulla was the set designer on the film, but coming here was a last-minute decision. She tells me that the production company fled town after the filming, leaving many debts unpaid, including her design fee. “It’s weird, because I ran into the director yesterday at a party and he asked if I was coming to the screening,” she tells me.

On a shuttle on her first day in town, she made a chance acquaintance with actor Ernie Hudson (“Ghostbusters,” “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle”) who’s in town to promote his new film, “The Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School.” He invited her to the film’s after-party, so after our dinner, she’s headed across the street to the Monkey Bar. As I watch her cross the street, she encounters five-bodies-deep crowds lined up at the velvet ropes. Two helpful bouncers lift her bodily over the crowd, and she disappears inside. A classic demonstration of Lesson No. 3: Your only hope of getting into the best parties is to know someone. (But that’s really applicable everywhere, isn’t it?)

The next day kicks off with the AFCI Brunch held at the Sundance House, one of the official festival venues on Main Street that provides information on screenings and space for filmmakers and press to conduct interviews. Film commissioners and industry people from all over the country mingle over mimosas and Southwestern specialties.

I watch as Gerbes receives hearty greetings from Leigh von der Esch, the Utah film commissioner, and Pat Kaufman, the New York commissioner. “I’ve got to see what projects I can steal away from New York,” says Gerbes with a grin.

“You already steal away plenty,” rejoins Kaufman. “But I don’t mind.”

Next, Gerbes is heading off to catch a screening at Slamdance, something called “Vampire Honeymoon.” Hmmm.

After the brunch, I head up the block to the Filmmaker Lodge, a homey, folksy meeting and workshop space housed in an old Elks Lodge. The main lounge area resembles a rustic cabin, with comfortable leather sofas and easy chairs pulled up in groups, and a humming coffee bar doing brisk business.

I’ve been trying for several days to hook up with Steve Lickteig, a Baltimore-based producer for NPR, and a film neophyte. Lickteig and his filmmaking partner Julie Checkoway are in town to make some connections for a film project they’re developing— “Waiting for Hockney,” a documentary on Maryland-based artist Billy Pappas.

Lickteig calls me on my cell to apologize, but he’s stuck in an editing room down in Salt Lake City and won’t make it into Park City today. But he has spent a lot of the past few days at the Lodge and has made some good connections. “The Lodge is a great place to hang out because everybody wants to know what everybody is doing, so there’s no stigma attached to talking about why you’re there,” Lickteig tells me. “It’s like, you’re doing stuff and they’re doing stuff and you’re supposed to talk about it. It’s kind of a freeing environment. I only lied once or twice.”

That evening, I join the Maryland contingent and we all head up the mountain in nearby Deer Valley to the swank Stein Eriksen Lodge, where Variety magazine’s “Top Ten to Watch” party is getting under way. We’re whisked in immediately via a side entrance, since the Maryland Film Office is a longtime co-sponsor of the event.

Inside the ballroom, bartenders dispense gin drinks (courtesy of sponsor Bombay Sapphire) and Stella Artois beer. Food stations in the corners of the room offer Chinese fried rice served in small carryout boxes with chopsticks, miniature cheeseburgers and three varieties of macaroni-and-cheese, ensuring that all comfort-food cravings are conveniently handled in one fell swoop. I spy Mark Zupan, the wheelchair-bound star of “Murderball,” a festival favorite about the hard-core sport of quad rugby, played by quadriplegics, and am introduced to director Ira Sachs, who’s being honored tonight for his film entry “Forty Shades of Blue.”

Sachs’ sister Lynne, who used to live in Baltimore, directed “Investigation of a Flame,” about the Catonsville Nine protests of 1968. She flags down Dietz when she spies him in the crowd.

“Swimmers” director Sadler is here with his wife, photographer Linda Farwell. He seems relieved that the week is almost over, even though he has no firm deal yet made for his film. What that means is that “Swimmers” and its director will continue the rounds of film festivals in the States and abroad. [As of this printing, Sadler’s film has not been picked up for distribution.]

Byron runs into Karyn McCarthy, an L.A.-based unit production manager who spent most of 2004 in Baltimore working on “Something the Lord Made” for HBO and the upcoming George Clooney/Matt Damon vehicle “Syrianna.” Gerbes connects with Charles Koones, the Bethesda-born president and publisher of Variety, the event’s main sponsor.

We take turns posing for group shots near the Variety podium, and a few more gag shots at a “green screen” photo set in the lobby, then weigh our options for the rest of the evening.

Batavick and Carven want to check out the Kodak party at the Riverhorse, where Cyzyk is already mingling in the churning crowd. Dietz is off to a private party at a home farther up the mountain. I’ll take my chances on that Kodak party, I guess. After all, I know somebody.

MAY/JUNE 2005

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