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.
"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."
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?"