The idea is to create a film festival on air, explains Dalton Delan, executive vp, programming and creative director, about the mandate of The Sundance Channel. The U.S. cable venture launched February 29, 1996 (on a leap year to save on anniversary celebration costs, he jokes) under the auspices of platforming the best and most innovative independent film through the medium of television.
Aside from the name, Sundance the channel’s relationship to the film festival held annually in Utah also comes in the form of Robert Redford, who co-owns the channel with Showtime and PolyGram. But in regard to the channel’s pull with the festival, ‘We don’t have an inside track,’ says Delan. ‘Often people think I must get the rights to all the films that play at Sundance, and none of that is true. We are a three-way venture, and we have Sundance leadership, in fact, creatively. There’s no question of that – Redford has ultimate say over the channel; he drives the creative of the network.’
The main programming initiative in a given month is a long block around a particular theme, with shorter thematically linked strands sprinkled throughout. Original programming is commissioned, functioning as thematic support in creating the festival feel. For example, interviews function as the q&a sessions which often take place after festival screenings, and films will be commissioned to fully develop a theme.
The choice of theme comes from a variety of sources: in some cases tied to an event, or to build on top of an acquisition. October had Indie Thrills; December 21 programming consisted of shorts running from A-Z to fit the shortest day of the year; sometimes it’s a filmmaker, such as John Sayles, whose Lone Star was just acquired by the channel; January is specially geared to the Sundance Festival, which takes place this month.
In the case of November, the month was anchored by a series of (mostly) docs and original programming on the Beat movement. The Beats Go On came about when William Tyler Smith approached Delan with The Third Mind.
‘It was a performance documentary by an interesting young filmmaker who was looking at Ray Manzarek and Michael McClure,’ recalls Delan. ‘It looked at the phenomenon of the jazz-poetry readings that they conduct together occasionally, and that gave it a lever to look at the 60s and 70s artistically, and how they influenced each other. Here you see a phenomenon in the 90s where it carries forward a tradition begun in the 50s.’
The film was still in process, and Smith was looking for the final funding. ‘I concluded that we could collaborate to finish this film,’ says Delan. ‘It was something I thought was very interesting, driven by the intensely beautiful rhythmic work, that was captured in veritž manner, of these two men collaborating.’
And this notion plays a significant part in the philosophy of Sundance. ‘The process of creative collaboration is something that is very Sundance. So the capturing of it in documentary was interesting to us. It was something which I then started to think about,’ says Delan.
Delan’s interest in the 50s movement went back to films he’d seen while doing a paper on the Beats during his days at Yale. The connection between independent filmmaking and the roots of the Beats was strong enough to form the basis of a filmfest.
Delan started acquiring programming to fill out the schedule, and this consisted almost entirely of documentaries. The influence of the Beats had filtered down through many generations, who became enamoured of the freedom of lifestyle and art. With this in mind, Delan commissioned Renee Tajima-Pena, with whom he had worked before and who had won a cinematography award in the doc competition at the Sundance Festival the year before, to make a film. Tajima-Pena took a camcorder and made The Last Beat Movie, her version of that great American tradition: the road movie.
Despite the doc-heaviness of this particular fest, it is by no means the standard. Delan qualifies the prevalence of non-fiction as being dictated by subject matter and program availability, as opposed to a deliberate emphasis. Each individual theme dictates the fiction/non-fiction division.
Delan himself has a long involvement with non-fiction, having been a documentary filmmaker, as well as director of documentary programming at HBO, and ABC’s Closeup unit. He exec produced America Undercover and Doing Time, which was nominated for an Oscar. Past positions also include senior vp of programming and production for The Travel Channel and director of program development for Lifetime Television.
Recently, the channel acquired a block of programming from Miramax, in conjunction with Showtime. ‘We’re almost all acquisitions; the commissions are one or two a month,’ explains Delan. ‘Most of our original work tends to be under five figures, let’s say, with a range, but we stay in the mode.’
‘I’d like to say everything we do on the channel, every element, every interstitial piece in its own right is the independent filmmaking experience. Indeed, working very creatively on the tightest budget possible is part of what we do – as much of it as we can for a start-up.
‘Would I have loved to have had Renee shoot on 16mm or Super 16? Sure. But that’s part of it; she could make her journey and everything else, but the choice of the medium was dictated financially. I will say there are – for some of what she did – now some elements of the documentary that are better because of the informality, the fly-on-the-wall nature of these little cameras that even pushed direct cinema.’
As for other doc opps, a strand is in the works for the upcoming year. High-profile theatrical docs look as if they have a future tv home; Al Pacino’s Looking For Richard is on the slate, as is Sick, the controversial film which won the 1997 Sundance Festival competition. Sundance does not shy away from problematic subjects.
‘Sundance Channel is one of the most highly differentiated services on television. No one else shows this work – recent independent work – with no restrictions. It’s just unique in television,’ says Delan.