PARK CITY, Utah — It was an image that had become synonymous with Sundance: Harvey Weinstein, slovenly attired in sweatpants and a parka, barreling out of a screening. For film industry and media folks alike, the sight meant that a night of hostile dealmaking lay ahead. This was, after all, “Harvey’s festival,” one the corpulent film mogul legitimized with his acquisition of Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 debut sex, lies and videotape, and whose mystique he intensified with the indie hits Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, Garden State, and Blue Valentine. Just last year, the former Miramax and Weinstein Company bigwig acquired the Taylor Sheridan drama Wind River at the fest, and also, in a cruel bit of irony, was one of the high-profile attendees at its satellite Women’s March, led by comedian Chelsea Handler.
What many of us not named Alec Baldwin didn’t know, however, was that Weinstein was not only a gross sexual predator, one who now stands accused of sexually harassing or assaulting over a hundred women, but that he’d allegedly used the renowned indie film festival to host several of his attacks.
As The New York Times reported in October, “In 1997, Mr. Weinstein reached a previously undisclosed settlement with Rose McGowan, then a 23-year-old-actress, after an episode in a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival.” Days after the McGowan revelation, the actress Louisette Geiss came forward to claim that Weinstein exposed himself to her during a script meeting at Sundance. When I spoke to the famed women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred at this year’s Sundance, she told me that she is currently representing “numerous persons who allege they are victims of Harvey Weinstein, and some of them allege that they were the victims of inappropriate conduct here as well. At Sundance.”
The Park City, Utah, festival, co-founded by film icon Robert Redford, is well-aware of its sordid Weinstein past. Prior to this year’s edition, festival director John Cooper opened up the Salt Lake Tribune about it, saying: “Harvey has been a fixture at Sundance for years. Is he still welcome? He is not. What Sundance has done is try to create a culture of inclusion and creativity together. We do not believe that we participate in or condone a culture that would contribute to crime and harassment. In fact, quite the opposite.” Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, added that the alleged Weinstein assaults “are nothing we were aware of at the time.”
For the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 18 to 28, Cooper and co. also updated its code of conduct policy in light of the Weinstein exposés, which now reads: “Sundance Film Festival is an environment where bold, creative, and distinctive voices are celebrated. Sundance Institute is committed to allowing attendees to experience the Sundance Film Festival free of harassment, discrimination, sexism, and threatening or disrespectful behavior. We reserve the right to role, without notice or refund, credentials or access to Festival events and venues for those who engage in such conduct. We have partnered with the Utah Attorney General’s office to provide a 24-hour live hotline, which will open on January 12th, for those who are involved in or witness something that violates this Code of Conduct.”
While many critics upbraided Sundance ‘18 for its perceived lack of “masterpieces,” with expectations unreasonably high following ‘17’s stellar lineup—which included Get Out, Call Me By Your Name, Mudbound, The Big Sick, Columbus, A Ghost Story, and ICARUS—this year was all about rebranding post-Weinstein.
There were documentaries (and talks) featuring feminist icons Jane Fonda, Gloria Allred, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with the Supreme Court Justice opening up about the sexual harassment she suffered from a chemistry teacher at Cornell; a conversation with The New York Times’ Jodi Kantor, one of the journalists who broke the Weinstein story; and discussions on topics ranging from diversity to inequality with the likes of Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Joan Jett, Catherine Hardwicke, and Octavia Spencer.
The fest’s new approach was evident in its programming, too.
In its earlier years, Sundance had established a reputation as the premier independent film festival in the world—and one that showcased toxically masculine fare like Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, The Usual Suspects, Clerks, and American Psycho. The last decade or so has served to correct the record, with the fest providing a platform for more female-focused films like Precious, Winter’s Bone, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Brooklyn. And the 2018 version continued this trend, with the lion’s share of its talked-about films made by or starring women.
There was The Tale, writer-director Jennifer Fox’s based-on-her-own-true-story saga seemingly tailor-made for the #MeToo era about an adult woman (Laura Dern) coming to terms with the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of a beloved mentor at 13. Lizzie features Chloe Sevigny and Kristen Stewart as Lizzie Borden and her maid, respectively, who rebel against the family patriarch’s sexual and psychological abuse by hacking the old bastard to pieces. Skate Kitchen, helmed by The Wolfpack’s Crystal Moselle, precision-renders the trials and tribulations of a teen-girl skateboarding posse. Eighth Grade chronicles the terribly awkward journey of an outsider trying to navigate the treacherous terrain of 8th grade and, in the process, find her voice (when she does, it will leave you in tears). Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, meanwhile, boasts an award-worthy turn from Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenage lesbian who, after getting caught hooking up with her female love on prom night, is forced to enroll in a sinister gay conversion therapy camp. Oh, and last but certainly not least, there was the fest’s biggest acquisition, to the tune of $10 million: Assassination Nation, a messy and intoxicating revenge-fantasy featuring four gun-toting high school gals wasting entitled boys (and men) left and right.
Sundance 2018 did contain one bad actor, however: Emile Hirsch. Though he didn’t attend this year’s fest, the 32-year-old did have a buzzy film in it, An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn, wherein he played the scheming, manipulative husband to Aubrey Plaza’s character. For those who don’t recall, at a nightclub party during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Hirsch violently assaulted a female executive for Paramount Pictures, Daniele Bernfeld, who later told police that “Hirsch put her in a chokehold from behind, dragged her across a table and body slammed her to the floor.” The actor eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault. Why a movie starring Hirsch was allowed into the fest lineup is anybody’s guess.
In mid-January, just before the start of Sundance ‘18, Rose McGowan was asked how we can make film events like Sundance safer places for women. “You’ve got 96 percent male directors in the DGA,” she said, referring to the Directors Guild of America. “Fix that, and then you’ll have a different Sundance, won’t you?”
At Sundance 2018, approximately 37 percent of the 122 feature films premiering at the fest were directed by women—up 3 percent from the previous year, and as Sundance noted, a figure “markedly ahead of the mainstream industry.”
It’s a good start, but the Sundance Film Festival has a long way to go till the foul stench of Weinstein evaporates into the ether.