About Utah: Tiny budgets, big dreams do come true at Sundance festival

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 27 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

PARK CITY — For a bunch of broke people, they sure did look happy.

Sundance invited its eight poorest filmmakers to take the stage Tuesday at the Filmmaker Lodge on Main Street to discuss the art of making a movie financed by Visa and MasterCard.

The eight directors have films in the NEXT category, a slot Sundance created this year especially for people "who embody the true spirit of indie filmmaking," i.e., you wouldn't ask them for a loan.

They're so independent they make the other independents look dependent.

In making their movies they answered to no studio, no sponsor, no executive producer, sometimes not even to their landlord.

Sundance set a maximum budget of $500,000 for the category. To be considered, a film's total costs had to be under that.

But when the eight directors heard that figure you could see them drooling.

What they could have done with half-a-mill.

Most of the NEXT movies were made for maybe half that; some for considerably less. In all, the eight films combined cost about $2 million to produce — or approximately $298 million less than "Avatar."

But whoever said money isn't everything must have seen a portrait of these people.

Linas Phillips' story is atypically typical of someone who, if they had to make a choice between the two, would rather make movies than make money.

Phillips' Sundance entry is called "Bass Ackwards," about a man who drives a 1976 Volkswagen van across America and finds self-acceptance along the way. The storyline is intensely personal — chiefly because Phillips is the man who drives the van, which he bought off Craig's List.

"When I bought it I didn't even know I was going to make a movie," he said. Let alone star in it.

But he was fresh off making a documentary about homeless people — while being homeless himself — so the van was a step up.

Phillips made the decision to live the life of an independent filmmaker four years ago, when he was 29.

"I realized it is most important to me to make films; my personal and emotional stability is like second," he said.

He quit his job as a teacher and bought a camera.

When times got really tough he'd get financial help from his family — not for his movie, but if he was behind on the rent or needed food.

Every time he started a new project his dad would ask the same question, "Why are you going to make another movie?"

"Now he's apologized," said Phillips. "That's because of Sundance, which was huge. It's more a gift for them (his parents) than anything."

He spent $30,000 filming "Bass Ackwards" and since its Sundance acceptance he's poured double that into it to get it festival ready.

But that's the downside.

The upside is that thanks to Sundance "Bass Ackwards" can now be downloaded off iTunes and Amazon, where the DVD is also being offered. Plus, it can be rented this week on YouTube; after the festival it will begin playing in selected art houses, and there is a cable TV deal in the works.

The bottom line: after all these years there just might be one.

"I'm in debt now, but …" says Phillips, already looking ahead to his next movie.

No telling what he'll do with a little capital to play with.

Lee Benson's column will run daily throughout the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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