Yesterday I learned that Sundance Film Festival media relations guy Jason Berger has taken away my beloved Express Pass, which I was honored to carry for five straight festivals (’12 thru ’16) and by which I had easy access to screenings and therefore some extra, extremely valuable writing time.
I feel heartbroken, to put mildly. And angry. Anyone would be. I’m still a member in good standing but my Sergeant stripes have been torn off. I’ve been asked to turn in my key to the executive washroom. I don’t think it’s excessively prima donna-ish to say that I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the privates.
For five years Hollywood Elsewhere strolled side by side with the Sundance Film Festival elite, getting right into Eccles, MARC, Library and Prospector screenings like a hotshot, and now that chapter is over. Even with an Express Pass covering Sundance was always an endurance test, but at least it softened the experience to some extent.
The result is that barring an act of mercy from some higher power (God, Robert Redford, someone), I’ll be back with the grunts for the 2017 festival, which starts in four weeks. Back in the mosh pit, waiting in lines, requesting tickets in advance from the press office, bumming tickets from publicists, forced to hit the Holiday Cinemas pass-holders tent at least 45 minutes or an hour before a given screening, etc. And my access to public Eccles screenings, where a lot of the action often takes place, will be catch-as-catch-can.
Which means I may or may not get into the first showing of a hot Eccles premiere, and may have to write about it two or three days later. Is that an absolute tragedy? No, but I was right there and filing like a hammer when Manchester By The Sea and The Birth of a Nation had their first big screenings. I was right on top of these events, and I may not be next month. Or maybe I’ll get in anyway — who knows?
But it’ll definitely be harder and take longer and involve more sweat and strain. Maybe with all the standing around my plantar fasciitis will start acting up again.
Berger says it’s a matter of “increased demand” and so forth. Every Sundance-attending media person with any kind of power wants a damn Express Pass, and I’m guessing that I got elbowed aside because some other “me me me” high-maintenance types have demanded an Express Pass or else, and Sundance has determined that they can only dispense a finite amount of these passes, and so they felt they had to chop some names off the list.
So what other journalist-critics with an Express Pass have been told “sorry, dude…you’ve been downgraded”? I’ve asked Berger three times if anyone else in my realm has been cut, and if so how many. He won’t answer. Which means that I may be the only high-profile columnist (industry-advertiser-supported, nationally known, covering Sundance since the early ’90s) who’s been given the shaft. Or maybe this has happened to 15 or 20 others. Or more. Perhaps it was political on some level. Maybe someone pushed a button on me.
I’ve written Sundance co-director Trevor Groth, begging for mercy. I’ve written John Cooper with the same plea. They may respond or they may just leave it in Berger’s hands, which would be the respectful thing to do from their perspective. Does Redford read Hollywood Elsewhere? Bob…help! We go back 35 years, brah. My pride has been handed to me on a plate.
I was initially given the Express Pass in 2012 by Sundance media-relations veteran Sarah Eaton, who left in March 2015 for a gig with the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. Her successor, Elizabeth Latenser, honored Sarah’s call about giving me an Express Pass. But Berger, who took over from Latenser this year, didn’t feel so obliged.
I can never, ever thank Ms. Eaton enough for transforming my Sundance experience — for making it so much easier, so much of a relative pleasure, so less arduous. I thought perhaps I’d finally made the grade when she gave me that pass — that all my decades of reporting, filing and reviewing along with the success of Hollywood Elsewhere had led to a plateau of special-tude, and that this plateau was a gesture of respect and whatnot. A kind of badge of honor after decades of hard-fought struggle.
Not so much!
I only know that the loss of the Express Pass is going to hurt or slow me down in 40 or 50 different little ways. Berger hasn’t taken away “access” to the various films, as he puts it, but the ease and speed of access that allows for extra writing time between screenings. You have to file all the time at Sundance, and if you’re standing in lines or have to be in a press tent an hour before a screening, you’re facing a tougher situation. Berger is damaging a process that I’ve been extremely priveleged to enjoy for five years. And with that comes less time, less coverage, etc. Which gives my competitors the edge.
Will I ever be able to wear an Express Pass ever again? I’ve been a pink-with-yellow-pastille guy at the Cannes Film Festival for many years, and knowing what I do about the French I don’t think they’ll ever take it away from me. Once you’ve earned their respect and allegiance, they don’t change their minds. Yes, this is America. The film industry has always been a rough-and-tumble arena, I get that. But damn, this hurts.
I’m reminded of a second-act scene in Lawrence of Arabia in which Peter OToole assesses the options of “Johnny Turk” regarding his strategic stronghold in Arabia: “He daren’t withdraw,” O’Toole says. “Arabia’s part of his empire. If he gets out now he knows he’ll never get back in again.”
It’s a shattering moment.