Silicon Valley Takes on Hollywood Again—at the Sundance Film Festival

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 23 2012 12:37 PM

Silicon Valley Takes on Hollywood—at Sundance

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Guests watch Cobra Starship perform presented by Bing at The Bing Bar on January 22, 2012 in Park City, Utah.

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Bing

Slate contributor Tim Wu is back at the Sundance Film Festival this week, where he’ll once again be writing occasional posts for Brow Beat.

The Sundance film festival launched this past weekend, with the usual mix of offbeat drama, thoughtful documentaries, and so on. But one thing feels a little different this year: the steadily increasing presence of Silicon Valley.

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Once upon a time the dominant story of Sundance was all about how Hollywood was taking it over, using its “indie” affiliates to buy up the best independent films, putting its own big-name actors into indie movies—and in the process sometimes ruining what might have been great films.

That’s still here. But over the last three years, with increasing frequency, the festival has become a place to watch Silicon Valley’s slow march into the entertainment world.

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley and Hollywood aren’t exactly easy friends—as last week’s battle royale over SOPA made clear. When Wikipedia went black last week it was to protest, essentially, the power of the Hollywood lobby. After Team Hollywood lost that battle, it can’t be pleasant for its members to watch this new rival try to become the great patron to independent filmmaking.

Of course, entertainment is an uphill battle for Silicon Valley. It has none of the movie stars or directors that people care about; its celebrities are mostly people who spent a lot of time coding in back rooms. Traditionally, only Apple, with Steve Jobs’s magic powers, was able to bridge the gap between Northern and Southern California (though George Lucas has made his own efforts coming from the other direction). Consequently, attempts by Silicon Valley to get into “content” have often fallen flat.

But the tech industry is nothing if not persistent. Microsoft has invested heavily, with Bing everywhere—part of its ongoing campaign to try to make its search engine cool. Google has countered this year with their own music venue, and seem serious about investing enough in YouTube to try to create, over time, both a source of funding for production and a serious distribution alternative. Yahoo! is hosting shorts.

Many of the attendees are from tech firms, while a number of the filmmakers present also dabble in digital media. It’s part of an effort, still nascent, to slowly shift the way content gets distributed to a different—and decidedly un-Hollywood—model.

Another difference is attitude. Hollywood has a habit of looking at indie film as a kind of fashionably minor-league version of itself—the way NBA scouts look at college basketball, say. But Silicon Valley and the techies seem, in contrast, just happy to be here.