Before his name became synonymous with sexual predation and disgrace, Harvey Weinstein was a fixture at the Sundance Film Festival, which kicked off on Thursday, January 18. The fates of Sundance and of Weinstein had seemed intertwined for decades. But months before the 2018 festival began, its organizers made clear that they wanted to distance themselves from the man who was at least partly responsible for making it the star-studded, industry-driving event that it is today.
In a November interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, festival director John Cooper was quite blunt: “Harvey has been a fixture at Sundance for years. Is he still welcome? He is not,” Cooper said. “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.”
At least two of Weinstein’s accusers have recalled abusive encounters with Weinstein that took place at Sundance. Activist and former actress Rose McGowan, who has waged a relentless fight against sexual predators in Hollywood and Weinstein specifically, says that Weinstein sexually assaulted her in a hotel room at Sundance in 1997; the New York Times reported that, following the incident, Weinstein settled with the actress for $100,000. And actress Louisette Geiss said in an October 10 press conference organized by attorney Gloria Allred that Weinstein exposed himself to her at a script meeting in his room at the 2008 festival.
Harvey Weinstein and the Sundance Film Festival profited from one another for decades
For years, Weinstein was a power broker at Sundance. Back in 1989, Miramax — the company that he and his brother Bob had founded — was still exploring ways to break into the foreign and arthouse market, and at the festival they spotted then-newcomer Steven Soderbergh’s feature debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
In 1989, Sundance wasn’t yet known as the powerhouse festival it is today, a place to launch careers and debut movies that would go on to win Oscars. But the Weinsteins ruthlessly pursued and ultimately bought the 26-year-old Soderbergh’s film, which wound up winning not just the audience prize at Sundance, but also the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes later in the year. .
Sex, Lies, and Videotape was a sensation. It was ultimately nominated for an Oscar, and upended the film world by bringing prestige and attention to independent film, forever equating the “indie” label with daring, artistically adventurous fare.
The film’s success turned Miramax into a heavy hitter in Hollywood; the Weinstein brothers became known for driving hard bargains for independent films and then waging marketing and awards campaigns that ensured they were met with acclaim (while often frustrating and confounding directors, whose work was frequently recut). Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Todd Field’s In the Bedroom, Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, and Zach Braff’s Garden State are all among the Sundance films that Miramax bought and turned into hits.
The success of those films helped make Sundance an important place for industry players to locate talent and sell their work; today, it’s arguably the most important film festival in the United States, and certainly ranks among the world’s top-tier film festivals.
Sundance is now moving into its post-Weinstein age
For nearly three decades following the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the Weinsteins were fixtures at Sundance, brokering deals and hobnobbing with both Hollywood’s elite and soon-to-be elite. But now, that’s changed.
The 2018 edition of the festival is the first “post-Weinstein” festival, and it was clear at the opening press conference on January 18 that organizers were eager to distance themselves. “Harvey Weinstein was a moment in time and we’re going to move past that,” Sundance founder Robert Redford said in his remarks. “I don’t think he’s going to stop the show.”
“When we have people that come to the festival like Harvey, they came to the festival with one thing in mind,” Redford said. “They appeared to be very supportive of the festival — and I think they were — but it was for their own interests, because they were looking at our festival to find out what they could cherrypick for their own use. So he could take some of the films and probably get them cheaper here, and then go on and promote them as his own.”
The Sundance Institute’s director, Keri Putnam, added, “We were sickened to hear along with everyone else about Harvey’s behavior, and even more so to learn that at least a couple of those instances happened at the Sundance Film Festival. They are nothing we were aware of at the time.”
In response to the national conversation around sexual harassment and abuse that has been ongoing since the allegations against Weinstein were made public in October, Sundance has instituted and distributed a new code of conduct for 2018. It condemns “harassment, discrimination, sexism, and threatening or disrespectful behavior,” and warns that festival credentials will be revoked for anyone who engages in such conduct. The festival has also partnered with the Utah Attorney General’s office to create a 24-hour hotline for reporting instances of sexual misconduct.
And though the festival programmers were already deep into their 2018 planning when the stories about Weinstein began to break, the influence of the subsequent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements is still visible. Sundance has usually run ahead of Hollywood in promoting women filmmakers; 37 percent of the 122 feature films premiering at the 2018 festival are directed by women, even though only 4.2 percent of 2017’s top-grossing films in the broader film industry were directed by women.
And several of this year’s Sundance films directly address issues of sexual predation and violence. One is Seeing Allred, a documentary about attorney Gloria Allred, who has recently represented a number of the women who’ve brought accusations against powerful Hollywood men. Another, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, is a moving and troubling story of a 13-year-old girl and a sexual predator; at a Q&A following the film’s premiere on Saturday morning, Fox called the film “all memoir.”
Conversations are happening both informally and formally around the festival, including a hosted event with New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, who helped break the Weinstein story, and columnist Charles Blow. And though it’s not directly connected to the festival, the January 20 “Respect Rally” featured a speaker lineup that included both Allred and Jane Fonda (the subject of another documentary playing at the festival).
The ties between the Weinsteins and Sundance will always be part of the festival’s history. But it’s obvious that Sundance wants to move on. As the first busy weekend gets underway, the film industry is still figuring out whether it’s merely experiencing a moment, or whether “the Reckoning” actually represents a seismic shift in the Hollywood establishment. “I do think it’s about more than a few individual men — I think it’s about the underlying systems of power,” Putnam said at the press conference. “Looking at what are those structures, what are those assumptions that we make in terms of what we value, who gets financing, who gets distribution, who gets to tell the stories, and what stories we tell.”