Starting this Friday evening, Sundance NEXT FEST will take over the Theater at Ace Hotel for a weekend of feature film screenings uniquely paired with live performances, compelling conversations, and more. While Park City’s larger Sundance Film Festival is a behemoth of an event, this weekend’s festival is an intimate but momentous affair. Behind the prestige of the Sundance name is the festival’s careful curation. While Park City’s event is a grand scheduling of about 120 films, NEXT FEST is but a tiny fraction of that with seven main film events. But don’t let the small size fool you, the slate of showings is an outstanding selection of boundary-pushing filmmaking. This year’s films are Lovesong, White Girl, Morris from America, The Greasy Strangler, Under the Shadow, Goat, and a selection of comedic short films entitled Downtown & Dirty Shorts, paired with musial performances, stand-up comedy, a youth talent show and more.
We speak to Sundance programmer, Charlie Reff on the challenges of curation, how to define success, and the cross-pollination found in the unique formatting of Sundance NEXT FEST.
CINEMA THREAD: What are the challenges of programming for a small festival like NEXT FEST versus Sundance Film Festival?
CHARLIE REFF: We play about 120 features at Sundance Film Festival, while at NEXT FEST we’re only doing seven events. It’s a lot of whittling down. We definitely want diversity within the seven events versus 120, and we have to push it even more so. That’s kind of the fun challenge with this festival.
CT: Have you seen your parameters for programming change at all as cultural shifts or current events occur?
CR: Yes. It’s interesting, especially with NEXT FEST. The idea is to support films that are unconventional in the way they approach their storytelling—films that push the boundaries. We don’t want a festival that stays the same or looks like the standard festival. The fun thing is definitely how it can evolve. It can keep changing its identity and how films are being showcased. It’s kind of built into the nature of it. Within the program itself, the basis we have to rely on is the films that we see from Park City. The kind of programming and elements beyond that are matched to that. The films then, themselves, and the art and the artists we are supporting, reflect the state of the world. We want to keep to playing new voices, making the right matches.
CT: Can you speak on the unique formatting at Sundance NEXT FEST? Is the filmmaker part of the dialogue in the curation of what’s paired with the film?
CR: We couldn’t do it without the filmmakers’ brainstorming and ideas. With the music elements, I always reach out to filmmakers first to get an idea of where their head’s at, what they feel, what would make sense. We brainstorm off that. This year with Lovesong and Shamir, that was [director] So Yong Kim’s idea. And I loved it. We kind of just immediately reached out and it was done—that was awesome. [In terms of] the conversations, like with White Girl, with Catherine Hardwick and [director] Elizabeth wood, or Under the Shadow, with John Landis + [director] Babak and the lead actress—with those ideas, that’s us talking directly to the filmmaker for ideas. Brainstorming and passing back over to them. They come back with, ‘I love this idea,’ or ‘this doesn’t make sense.’ It’s a direct dialogue we’re having with them. All based on them and the artists that inspire them. The conversation is based on who they want to talk about their film with.
The talent show idea—I know the filmmaker really well. We talked back and forth about what made sense: music or a talent show. I mentioned it, he loved it and said it sounded like something totally special. Working with these filmmakers, celebrating and hanging out with them in Park City, we develop a very close relationship. We definitely plan to use their vision to guide how we plan each specific pairing.
CT: What has the response been from musicians when you approach them to perform for Sundance NEXT FEST?
CR: One thing I’ve learned throughout this process, meeting the musicians and filmmakers, they’re both kind of obsessed with each other!
Filmmakers think musicians are way cooler and tougher than them. Musicians love filmmakers and the control and world-making they get to do.
Even in the program this year, we have FlyLo directing something, Alan from Neon Indian directing his music video. Those are two musicians who are obsessed with the idea of directing. Filmmaking is one of the biggest influences on their work. Filmmakers and musicians see each other at festivals, but it’s great for them to be able to connect with different artists and mediums. They definitely hang out and see the other movies. Alan was one of the DJs and part of music program last year. It’s an awesome opportunity to show his music video and reach out to other musicians. It’s something different for all of them. I love the idea of connecting these two industries and creating the space for it.
CT: It seems like there’s a lot of cross-pollination.
CR: That’s the hope! How do we cross-pollinate between these audiences? It takes a lot of effort to know about art, a lot of people compartmentalize. They know music, or film—it’s the same taste and the same kind of open-mindedness—but appreciation of culture takes a lot of work. We’re hopefully doing a lot of work [with the idea that] if you’re excited about X, you’ll like Y.
CT: How did you decide on the LA groups who are invited to perform at the talent show accompanying Morris from America?
CR: We came up with the talent show and Craig Robinson agreed to host it. I worked with the diversity initiative within Sundance and Moira, who runs the initiative. She has a lot of relationships with youth and arts organizations in LA, through her job and outreach. We told her the idea and she listed a bunch of organizations in the right age range and a variety of different acts to showcase. We wanted to keep it small and got Inner City Arts, 826LA, Venice Arts. [Regarding Stones Throw’s participation,] I had Peanut Butter Wolf deejaying closing night at Sundance, and I got him tickets to movies and we were able to hang out. I mentioned I was kind of looking for a live music act, and he sent videos of his nephew, who’s 11. [The curation is] all very kind of loose, seeing what makes sense, who’s excited about the idea. Everyone’s been practicing, rehearsing, etc. Everyone’s bubbling with anticipation. People have big smiles, and it’s probably gonna have a big crowd!
CT: How do you measure your success?
CR: I would say here at the Institute, it’s built to support artists, but another thing we’re equally supposed to be supporting is audiences—trying to nurture audiences to then be the ones supporting the artists. As important as it is to have a viable artists community, we also need an audience to match it so it can sustain itself.
We can support artists all we want but it won’t matter if audiences aren’t there.
We need to build an ecosystem of creation and support so the art can keep coming.
[It’s also about] building growing audiences who are excited about the idea that new and different generations of artists are coming out and doing it exceptionally well. And you mentioned earlier, cross-pollination—the hope is that we’re not just filling the slot of just another regional festival. I don’t want to get the exact same audience that would see the film at another festival—a savvy cinephile audience—I want to create a program to convince strangers who knew nothing about this movie or music, and create a scenario that will bring in a stranger to discover and hopefully fall in love with the artists or the world of culture/art.
It’s a big thing for the filmmakers to have the screening in LA and get the encouragement from that. It’s a special thing and there’s a real history—not just the festival—but the history and the kind of magic of being in a theater like that. Your first movie that you toiled at with your friends and you get to have this very encouraging experience. We want to encourage the artists and encourage the audience that’s there too.
The above interview was edited for clarity.
Sundance NEXT FEST takes place August 12-14 at The Theatre at Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles. More info and tickets ($15-25) at sundance.org/next.