Whatever it once was, today's Sundance has gotten ugly. For 10 days, Park City, Utah, gets tied up in more velvet ropes than a practitioner of Japanese bondage, while boorish "fans" make New York's Meatpacking District seem mellow by comparison. The films, meanwhile, range from great to boring to barely watchable. You might think, in our era of decentralized media, that we would have discovered a better way of finding good independent films. Yet, despite living in an age where bands are born on MySpace and blogs by basement dwellers out-rate CNN, the world of independent film seems strangely immune to the World Wide Web. Sundance and other film festivals represent the big running exception to the main media story of the 2000s: crowds besting experts in finding great independent material.
At first glance, the Web and independent film appear to be a perfect match. The main economic challenge in independent film is finding the one great film amid the hundreds of pretentious, dull, or simply average films that get produced every year. Someone has to sit through those films and find the few diamonds in the several thousand acres of roughage.
The Web can be an incredible tool for finding such needles in haystacks. It takes advantage of that segment of the public with enough time, bandwidth, and surplus attention (i.e., boredom) to watch or read completely unknown content. In Web culture, if you like what you see, you recommend it—either by linking to it on your blog, through recommendation sites like reddit, or simply telling friends. In the same way that Wikipedia was built by volunteers, the Web is the world's greatest, all-volunteer system for finding that one great cartoon or blog entry buried underneath thousands of duds. Moreover, the good independent stuff the Web finds gets big attention by any measure. The No. 1 YouTube video of 2006, The Evolution of Dance, had 38 million viewers. That's comparable to the number of people who paid to watch Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the top-grossing film of 2006.
But the Web's decentralized filtering system isn't working for film. Many people speculate that no one wants to watch a movie on his or her computer. While that may be a part of the story, the "people won't do X on their computer" explanation has been wrong so often that it cannot be the full answer. The last decade has demonstrated that people are surprisingly willing to put up with lower quality or discomfort to get the content they want or to get stuff for free, whether it's telephones (cell phones and Skype), music (MP3s), and even video (YouTube). We just aren't that picky.
Other Web-film pundits suggest that Internet bandwidth is the problem, and that movies are just too big to download. While that may have been true once, it's getting less true. At a site like Film Annex, you can download a Charlie Chaplin movie of VHS quality in about six minutes. The films on Netflix's preview and watch-it-now service deliver smoothly and quickly. And even the big studios have taken baby steps toward Net downloads with the sprinkling of films now on iTunes.
The real problem is not the technology, it's us. Independent producers today only rarely make their films available online. There are early exceptions, like the short films collected at the Daily Reel or the DVD documentaries at Brave New Films. But many independent filmmakers are surprisingly traditional about how they want to reach their audience. Like the film version of debutantes, they dream of the day that Harvey Weinstein or Sony Classics will show up, sweep them off their feet, and distribute their film to the masses. The hope of signing the big deal has inhibited a flood of online, feature-length film—so far.