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AND THE WINNERS WERE …

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: As the 2019 Sundance Film Festival gets going (which wraps up Saturday night and screens winning films during the day on Super Bowl Sunday), let's look back at its beginnings. Utah’s first major film festival was held in Salt Lake City during summer 1977 as part of the nationwide celebration of the country’s bicentennial. Out of that sprang the Utah/US Film Festival, which was held in Salt Lake City Sept. 6-12, 1978, and was composed primarily of old classic movies. But there was one unique element, an independent-film competition with six low-budget American movies judged by a panel of cinema professionals. The second Utah/US Film Festival shifted to late October 1979 and again featured many vintage classics on Salt Lake theater screens, along with five “regional cinema” independents to be judged by professionals. So, I’m using this space to highlight some of my stories about that gestating period, which would eventually lead to what we now know as the Sundance Film Festival. I was a city desk reporter, not yet the full-time film critic at the Deseret News (although I was freelancing occasional reviews to the entertainment section), but because of my interest in all things celluloid I was allowed to write about some of the festival events. This story about the end of the second festival was published Oct. 29, 1979, under the headline, ‘Utah/US jurors give top honors to “Spirit in the Wind.” ’

“Spirit in the Wind,” a true “Rocky”-like story of life in Alaska, has been named the grand-prize winner of the Utah/US Film Festival’s Independent Filmmakers Competition.

A jury of seven film experts and professionals spent nearly three hours Sunday night debating the merits of five finalist films before making the selection.

The jurors were so impressed with two of the other finalists that they gave the films “special jury recognition.”

“Spirit in the Wind,” a film by Ralph Liddle of Alaska, is the story of George Attla from childhood to manhood in the wilds of that area.

The two runners-up were “Northern Lights” by John Hanson and Rob Nilson of North Dakota (winner of the 1979 Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or award), and “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” by Gene Corr and Steve Wax of California.

The Utah/US Film Festival, at the Elks Twin Cinemas, 139 E. South Temple, and the Utah Media Center, 20 S. West Temple, will award plaques and a $1,000 prize to each filmmaker. “Spirit in the Wind” will be designated grand-prize winner and will be screened Monday at 8 p.m. in the Elks Twin Cinemas.

Requirements to enter the competition were that each film be at least 70 minutes in running time, either 16 or 36 mm and, if possible, reflect something of the financing and creative resources of the areas wherein they were made. They had to be American-made films.

 

Filmmaker George Romero, left; character actor John Anderson

Twenty-one pictures were submitted to the festival and were screened by a local panel, which pared the finalists down to five and selected three honorable-mention films.

Local panelists had predicted “Northern Lights” as the frontrunner but several said “Spirit in the Wind” would give the North Dakota film stiff competition.

Jurors said Sunday all three named films had important messages and should be recognized, but “Spirit in the Wind” had an especially appealing quality. It and “Northern Lights” were based on historic fact, but “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” was acknowledged as being the most courageous of the three, with a contemporary theme of joblessness and marital conflict.

The jurors for this year’s competition were actor John Anderson (“Psycho,” “Ride the High Country,” the upcoming Schick-Sunn Classics’ “In Search of the Historic Jesus”); Diana Lady Dougan, a telecommunications consultant, and member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting board and the Utah/US Film board; Linwood Gale Dunn, founder-president of Film Effects of Hollywood and special-effects expert for more than 100 movies (“King Kong,” 1933; “Citizen Kane”); Arthur Knight, film critic, author and professor of film at University of Southern California; Alan Mitosky, project administrator for Short Film Showcase, New York; Tom Rodgers, actor, playwright and professor of languages at Brigham Young University, Provo; and independent filmmaker George Romero (“Dawn of the Dead,” “Night of the Living Dead”).

It was difficult to single out one of the productions, as shown by the lengthy deliberation, and all the jurors had praise for the many filmmakers represented in the competition.

Dunn, the only juror who served in the same capacity at last year’s festival, said he is always amazed at the high quality of the products turned out by the independents.

Knight said it’s impossible to make a film in Hollywood for less than $5 million and that’s often a hang-up for young filmmakers just starting out. “The one model they have is the Hollywood movie — and you can’t make a Hollywood movie on a $25,000 budget!”

Once the financing is obtained, however, the greatest obstacle faced by independent filmmakers is how to market their products.

“The problem always comes back to distribution,” said Anderson. Romero added that it leads back to competition with the Hollywood mainstream. Even the smaller films that receive wide distribution must compete with big-budget mass-advertising campaigns that sell major-studio features.

 

Telecommunications expert Diana Lady Dougan, special-effects wizard Linwood Gale Dunn

Lawrence Smith, competition coordinator, said last year’s Salt Lake festival was the first to offer cash prizes to independent filmmakers in an open feature-length competition. Since then other festivals have begun imitating the Utah/US Film Festival model.

In addition to honoring the films and the spirit of independent filmmaking, the competition is designed to encourage future production and distribution. After last year’s grand-prize winner — “Girlfriends” — was announced, it went on to national distribution and won other critical honors.

“This is such a shot in the arm for the filmmaker,” said Romero, whose feature “Martin” was a finalist in last year’s Utah competition. He said another of last year’s finalist filmmakers won a job with Universal Pictures in Hollywood as a direct result of the festival competition.

Mrs. Dougan said she has heard more about last year’s Utah festival in New York and Hollywood than in Utah. Its profound effect on independent filmmaking is the talk of the movie industry, according to the jurors, and several said they hope independents will give Hollywood a run for its money in the future.

“It’s revealing new audiences as well as new filmmakers,” said Knight. “This is a great place to expose the new talents and help them make contacts with distributors and others who can help them in the industry.

The other two finalists were Jon Jost’s “Chameleon” from California and “Effects” by the Image Works — John Harrison, Dusty Nelson and Pat Buba of Pennsylvania.

The film festival continues through Tuesday with movies being shown from 10 a.m. to midnight, the Independent Filmmakers Seminar in the Salt Palace and the awarding Tuesday of the John Ford Medallion to Frank Capra. James Stewart will make the presentation to Capra.

EDITOR’S NOTE: There was no film festival in 1980 but in January 1981 “The Third Annual Festival for American Film,” as the program booklet referred to it, changed its name to the United States Film and Video Festival and made its Park City debut. The Sundance Institute was founded in 1979 and took over the festival in 1984, though the ‘Sundance’ moniker would not become part of the festival’s name until 1990.