Separation of Sundance and State

By Christopher Lisotta

Originally published on Advocate.com November 21 2008 1:00 AM ET

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.

SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL X100 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM 

"People are
saying, ‘Oh, why don’t they just move those
films down the street to another cineplex?’
There isn’t one," Cooper explained, noting that
the festival is a not-for-profit venture. "We use every
possible space. These four theaters are crucial to our
infrastructure."

Cooper also takes
issue with the way boycott promoters have defined
Sundance.

“We’re definitely not a Utah film
festival,” Cooper said. “We are a
national film festival with global impact. Films we show at
Sundance have a global life after Sundance.”

The
festival’s lineup of films is being slotted into
venues this week, with Sundance’s full schedule
to be announced the first week of December.
Cooper said he will be sensitive about what gets slotted
into the Cinemark theaters.

“My first
and foremost responsibility right now is to the
filmmakers,” Cooper said. “I would never
put pressure on a filmmaker to go there or do a
Q&A there if they didn’t want to.”

The boycott is
also an issue for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation, which has a major presence at Sundance with
its Queer Lounge, a networking venue and meeting place
that’s become a major festival destination.

Neil Giuliano,
GLAAD’s president, said his organization has no plans
to pull out of the festival.

“We think
that Queer Lounge and GLAAD have to be more visible than
ever,” Giuliano said. “We have to ensure
the LGBT community has a voice at Sundance. These film
festivals are a critical way to achieve the goals of
fair and accurate inclusion in the media, especially in the
entertainment media."

Giuliano noted
that the Queer Lounge has a relationship with local LGBT
groups, including Equality Utah, the Utah Pride Center, HRC
Utah, the Bastian Foundation, and the Utah AIDS
Foundation.

“We need
to be there and support them at this time and not render the
LGBT community invisible in Utah,” he said.

But will Giuliano
personally be going to a screening at the Cinemark
venue when he’s in Utah?

“No,” he said flatly, “and I
don’t see the LGBT community doing that, and
hopefully we will be able to avoid that kind of a
situation.”

 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL X100 (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

The initial call
for boycotts came at around the same time that Sundance
announced its 2009 opening-night film would be the
full-length claymation feature Mary and Max
from Australian director Adam Elliot. Elliot made
international headlines in 2004 when his Sundance
submission Harvie Krumpet won the Academy Award
for best short film and he thanked his boyfriend
during his acceptance speech. Elliot said in an e-mail that
he is planning on attending the 2009 festival.

“Both
Melanie (my producer) and I are absolutely aware of the
controversy about Proposition 8 and will proudly wear
‘no to 8’ badges on Opening Night at
Sundance,” Elliot wrote. “We don’t feel
entitled to speak on behalf of others, but we do hope
our work, which has accepting difference as a key
theme, will speak for us.”

A spokeswoman for
Sundance said that Mary and Max is
scheduled to screen in a non-Cinemark venue. But when
asked if he would attend other screenings being held at the
Holiday City 4, Elliot wrote, “We are still
gathering information and so many decisions are yet to
be made. We're still trying to work out how to get
there from Australia!”

Cooper said he
understands the sentiment behind the boycott. “I
actually believe in boycotts,” he admitted.
“That’s actually where you get something
done. If you hit people financially, that is what is going
to make people turn around. I think it scares people,
especially in this financial climate. Our relationship
with Cinemark has sadly been a great one. The people
who work there, there are a lot of gay employees.”

As to whether or
not Cooper himself will attend a screening at the
Holiday City 4, he revealed, “I haven’t
decided yet,” noting that the issue of wielding
financial power to create change goes far beyond
Sundance.

“I have to
look into everything I do,” Cooper said. “We
all do, right? That is the question at hand -- what do
we do in our daily lives?"