Sundance 2019: Is ‘An Artist at the Table’ Risking Independence?

Question: Is this an event celebrating indie film or is it a party at a country club I’m not a member of? The kickoff event to Sundance Film Festival is always an incredibly lo-o-o-ong evening called “An Artist at the Table.” The event is a fundraiser for the institute and an evening of glad-handing and congratulations for the members of the donor class. Of which, I am not one.

Last night’s evening was the event’s 10th anniversary. It kinda showed its age. Before the dinner, guests lined up at the Eccles Theater for an hour or so of air-kissing and squealing as the middle-aged rich people and the semi-celebrities greeted each other. It coulda been a 1968 class reunion, except for the prevalence of young guys in beanies (the advertised “artists at the table” and assorted Sundance volunteers).

A blessedly short speech was made by the man of the hour, Robert Redford. He recounted the story of the Festival, from the light-bulb moment when he realized the world and the Wasatch needed an indie film festival, to the now, an auditorium filled with well-heeled donors and a Sundance premiere film After the Wedding starring Julianne Moore.

an artist at the table

Not totally sure how this particular film qualifies as “indie.” But it doesn’t. This film is in a special category called premiere or something which translates to commercial and not an actual entry in the film-festival’s competition. Given all the rhetoric of the evening, why did this film, a fine film with a fine cast and all that, get this primo spot in front of the festival’s biggest money folk? Can’t they see this at the Broadway this coming fall? Who among us doesn’t love an overwrought and sentimental story about a rich artist—a Julie Andrews as Maria-looking Michelle Williams and a Dark Victory-esque Julianne Moore who doesn’t want to die but is going to? Sounds like a Sunday afternoon matinee followed by early dinner at Copper Onion to me.

Why not show one of the amazing documentaries from around the world? I think that’s a valid question. Give this crew something small and genuine. Given the pomp and backslapping of the night, why not show all the gathered donors what Sundance is REALLY about? How about Tigerland? A documentary about a game officer in India risking his life to save, well, tigers. How about Where’s My Roy Cohn? A doc about the life and times that connects the dots behind the puppet master who created Donald Trump? Or The Magic Life of V, the story of a woman using LARPing to heal old wounds? These (and many more) are Sundance films that this, this audience should see.

Que sera, sera. The whole audience is bussed over to the Utah Film Studios for dinner, where each decorated table is hosted by an artist, several of whom got up on various stages to make short speeches about how wonderful Sundance is.

Organizing committee members also made speeches, not short. The whole thing had an unfortunate Oscars-ceremony feel to it. You know that part when the dude from the academy gets to make his speech? Times it by 10.

an artist at the table

And, OK, I did get close to Glenn Close, whose speech had none of the self-congratulatory officiousness of the committee members. But then she’s Glen Close—class just oozes. And, I ran into an old friend of my late-husband’s, Barb Bridges founder of Denver Film Society’s women + film. So that was nice.

But, of course, NONE of this is the point. The predictable catered dinner, the overlong speeches, the celebrities on sale for the evening, the self-congratulatory tone of the night. Even the non-indie movie was beside the point.

THE POINT is that the event raised $1 million for the Sundance Institute so they can continue to help struggling film students, make sure women and other minorities have a shot at the world of cinema and of course, give more dinners like Artist at the Table.

Maybe next year? Show a film from one of these? The ones who bleed to make a movie, pay an entry fee and hope beyond hope that their story will make it to a wider audience with success at Sundance. Just sayin’.

PHOTO GALLERY: © 2019 Sundance Institute | photos by Duston Todd.

See all of our Sundance coverage here.


Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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