The film that spawned Sundance

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“Although Redford had been one of Hollywood’s leading box-office earners for a decade, when he looked around him at the end of the 1970s, he didn’t like what he saw. A decade earlier, the studios had been so desperate that directors like Scorsese and Robert Altman, who would have been — and virtually were — indies in the 1980s, could work inside the system, so that an institution such as Redford contemplated would have been superfluous. But the landscape had changed so dramatically since then that now it was a necessity. Redford understood that the most creative filmmakers were being increasingly shut out of the system. He also recognized that if a would-be filmmaker were brown, black, red, or female — forget it; his or her chances of getting a project produced were virtually nil. He knew that indie filmmaking was generally a trust-fund enterprise, because outside of a few federal grants and cash from the proverbial family friends, orthodontists, eye doctors, and so on, there was precious little money available to produce them. Raising money, not to mention writing, casting, shooting, and editing, was brutal, teeth-grinding work that could take years, and if by some miracle it all somehow came together, directors often found, pace the thimblefull of tiny, struggling distributors, that they had to release their films themselves, leaving them broke, exhausted, and disillusioned. In short, indies needed help.

Redford believed that American film culture could contribute more than stale sequels and retreads, that historically, before the renewed hegemony of the studios, film had been a medium for genuine artists and could be again if only they could be sheltered from the marketplace long enough to nurture their skills and find their voices. Oddly enough, he had or thought he had some firsthand experience with the problems they encountered. As he has said repeatedly, “I knew what it was like to distribute a film that you produced. In 1969, I carried Downhill Racer under my arm, fighting the battles that most people face.” He came to understand, as he puts it, the dilemma of the “filmmaker who spends two years making his film, and then another two years distributing it, only to find out he can’t make any money on it, and four years of his life are gone. I thought, that’s who needs help.”

-Peter Biskind, Down & Dirty Pictures

Downhill Racer plays NWFF July 17-23 at 7pm as part of our year-long 69 series.

More info here.

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