The Great Debate: SXSW vs. Sundance

Our Great Debate this week addresses an explosive question that has incited arguments among philosophers and brought nations to war: Sundance or SXSW? I am pleased to take the Sundance side of the debate; joining me on the opposing (losing) side, speaking up for SXSW, is Rob Hunter of Film School Rejects. Both parties stipulate that they hold both film festivals in high esteem, and that it's not an either/or situation, this is a rhetorical exercise, yada yada. Let's debate!

Eric D. Snider, Team Sundance: Let me say up front that I love both festivals. I look forward to them every year, each for different reasons. But by almost every standard of measurement, Sundance is the better festival. The average quality of the films is generally higher at the 'dance -- I know there are clunkers, but I'm talking overall -- and the films that play in Utah's snowy climes are more often the ones that go on to be significant spokes in the indie-cinema wheel. SXSW is more fun and has better weather, but those qualities are merely cosmetic.

Rob Hunter, Team SXSW: It appears that I've already won this so-called debate as you've not only conceded your love for SXSW but also acknowledged it's more fun than Sundance, but I'll go through the motions anyway. The quality of films argument is a bit misleading for the simple fact that many of the "best" movies there also find a home at the 'west. So you can argue that Utah sees them first, by a matter of weeks, but their appearance in Austin pretty much negates the "better" distinction. And if I'm seeing the same movies in both places then those cosmetic qualities you spoke of start to play a bigger role.

Snider, Team Sundance: Rob, you ignorant slut. Surely the fun quotient is not the most important factor. Yes, SXSW is more fun than Sundance. You know what's more fun than both of them? Disneyland. Does that mean Disneyland is the better film festival? No. That's dumb. Why would you even say that? Are you even listening to yourself?

I enjoy a good time as much as the next person (unless the next person is Gary Busey), but that's not what makes one film festival better than another. The quality of the films is the most critical factor. And while you're right that SXSW shows SOME of Sundance's standouts, it certainly doesn't get all of them. In addition, SXSW's average is brought down by -- let's be honest -- a lot of world premieres (especially among narratives) that simply aren't very good. I don't mean that as a slam on SXSW, which is much newer than Sundance and has different priorities. But if quality is the key component, Sundance has SXSW beat.

Sundance also plays a large role in shaping the course of independent film for the year. Last year's lineup included "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "The Sessions," "Safety Not Guaranteed," "V/H/S," "Searching for Sugarman," and "The Queen of Versailles." Quality aside, there's no denying those were some of the most talked-about and influential indie films of 2012. And Sundance does it every year. How often are the reverberations of SXSW's premieres felt once the fest is over?

Hunter, Team SXSW: They say insults and name-calling are the last refuge of an out-argued and drowning man who feels compelled to wear wizard hats to cover his sparsely populated pate, so I'll be avoiding a descent to your level except to say that I am far from ignorant.

The debate here is in regards to which fest is better, and since that's a highly intangible and subjective term it has to broken into smaller qualifiers. The fun quotient is one such qualifier, and there's no question that SXSW wins that round. There's simply more to do in between films, and even the fest runners bring the funny and entertaining through their bumpers and creatively-written "No talking, cell phones, etc" warnings before each film. And your incorrect claim that Disneyland is fun aside, your analogy is nonsensical. You may as well argue that the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the better film fest because it featured more volunteers.

And while SXSW doesn't get all of the Sundance standouts, this year shows that it can get the best. "Upstream Color," "Before Midnight," "Prince Avalanche," "Mud," "Don Jon," "VHS2," "The Spectacular Now," "The East"... Sure, they missed "The Way Way Back," but at least SXSW was smart enough to not grab "Fruitvale." Sundance has just as high a percentage of duds as SXSW because it's a matter of math as much as anything else.

Day 1 Press Conference - 2012 Sundance Film Festival

The difference is that Sundance has a certain illusory cachet about it that makes people "think" its films are the best of the best even when they're not. Your own example of "Beasts of the Southern Wild" shows that they can even make amateurish, over-reaching garbage smell like award-worthy roses.

But how about the audience quotient? Because it only took one trip to Sundance for me to recognize that it is not a film fest designed for movie lovers. It's a buyer's market designed for people on cell phones who have no compunction about walking out early from every single film they see.

Snider, Team Sundance: I will have you know, sir, that this is a prescription hat.

It's appropriate that you ignored my question about how often SXSW films make a splash outside of SXSW, because it was a rhetorical question, because the answer is PRETTY MUCH NEVER. You may not have liked "Fruitvale" at Sundance (making you part of a very small group), but do you doubt it will be a significant part of the conversation this year?

There's nothing about Sundance that gives its films a false aura of excellence. To say that is to ignore the many Sundance films that are panned and disregarded: if you think Sundance critics go easy on stuff just because it's a "Sundance movie," you're not paying attention. (And not for nothing, but plenty of so-so films get a HUGE crowd response at the Paramount Theatre during SXSW -- and then, appropriately, fall into oblivion.)

Both fests have good and bad movies. We agree on that. I contend that if you were to watch and grade every single film at both festivals in any given year, the average Sundance score would be higher than the average SXSW score. If you were to count only the films making their world premieres at either fest, the difference would be even more stark. That's just math, "Rob Hunter" (if that is even your name).

Sundance's press and industry screenings do attract douchebag industry types whose cell phones glow during the film and who leave once they decide they're not going to buy the film. But the Sundance public screenings are often exciting gatherings of movie fans from around the world, a mixture of glitz-and-glamour and good old-fashioned cinemania. Those lucky people are often among the very first to see excellent movies that are destined for cultural significance later in the year.

We have reached the end of our debate time. The moderator is waving the flag. I will give you the last word, Mr. "Hunter."


Hunter, Team SXSW: Your argument seems to hinge mostly on timing in that Sundance gets these "important" films first, but by that standard we could just as easily be arguing that Cannes or Toronto are the better fests as the movies that hit big there often become the conversation throughout the following year. And I can't argue with the calendar.

Your math-ish contention about watching, grading, collating and analyzing every single film at each fest is a hypothetical that shan't ever be proven. And I can't argue with a negative.

Your distinction between the P&I and public screenings at Sundance raises an interesting point though. I'd argue that festival audiences in general are not ideal audiences with which to watch films, but while I witnessed walk-outs and cell phones at every single screening I attended at Sundance they were more prevalent in the P&I ones. And I can't argue with you being mildly correct in that distinction.

Your argument that you didn't make is the one I agree with most. Sundance is most definitely the best fest for filmmakers in that the perception and cache surrounding it all often provide enough attention to secure distribution deals and such. Movie fans don't care about that though, and the fact that they can see many of those same movies a few weeks later in a warmer, friendlier location with better food options, beautiful walking trails and scantily clad human billboards pretty much seals the deal on the audience side of things.

But my final point regarding which of the two film festivals is better comes down to an irrefutable fact from which you will have no possible rejoinder... I've never seen Jeff Wells at SXSW.

Snider, Team Sundance: I lied when I said I'd give you the last word (and also when I told you I loved you). Please permit me to conclude by saying that I believe Sundance is the better film festival -- but as a movie lover, if I had to choose (which I don't), I would rather attend SXSW. But Sundance is better, so there.