Separation of Sundance and State

Separation of Sundance and State

The coming year is supposed to be a joyous milestone for the Sundance Film Festival. Arguably the most important film festival in the United States and one of the most celebrated in the world, Sundance turns 25 when it opens on January 15, 2009. For fans of LGBT cinema, the festival that introduced queer classics including The Times of Harvey Milk and Longtime Companion and helped them become box office successes has always been a must-attend. But this time around, Sundance finds itself at the center of the backlash created by the passage of California’s Proposition 8.

Besides being the home of Sundance, Utah is the central hub of the Mormon Church, which organized its followers to support the amendment banning same-sex marriage in the Golden State and encouraged them to give generously to the cause. With many gays and lesbians enraged by Prop. 8’s passage, boycotts of all shapes and sizes have popped up, encouraging LGBT consumers to financially punish Prop. 8 supporters and their businesses.

John Aravosis has been among the most vocal bloggers on the Internet encouraging those slated to attend Sundance to skip the festival -- and to make sure that not another dime goes to Alan Stock, who donated $9,999 to the Yes on 8 campaign. Stock is the CEO of Cinemark, a movie theater chain with more than 4,700 screens in 38 states. Cinemark’s theaters include the Holiday City 4 in Park City, which has been a major venue for Sundance for years.

“I pity the person whose movies are showing at that cinema during Sundance, because I have a funny feeling there are going to be some really bad pickets,” Aravosis wrote on November 14, noting that once Sundance filmgoers know Cinemark’s CEO was a Yes on 8 donor they are likely to think twice about walking through the theater’s doors. “Some directors and producers are going to be really pissed at Sundance for putting their movies at that cinema,” he added.

A boycott Cinemark website and Facebook page sprung up soon after.

This creates a conundrum for John Cooper, the director of programming at the Sundance Film Festival and the director of creative development for the Sundance Institute. Cooper, who has been with Sundance for two decades, is a California native who married his partner of 19 years just days before the 2008 election.

Cooper described Sundance’s host community, the tiny ski town of Park City, as a bright blue oasis in a ruby-red state. He also noted that Summit County, home to Park City, “is one of the most liberal counties in Utah. It's definitely a progressive community.” Cooper thinks the idea of boycotting Utah itself “died out pretty quickly,” but wondered why activists are focusing on Utah when California is the state where civil rights were voted away.

“I am really saddened, ashamed, and embarrassed by my state right now,” he said.

Cooper said that dropping the Cinemark venue as a screening space isn’t an option for Sundance.

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