Jeffrey Brown Reports from Sundance

BY Arts Desk  January 29, 2010 at 4:05 PM EDT

Our own Jeffrey Brown has been at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival this week as a juror for the World Cinema Documentary category.

While he’s not allowed to talk about the films he’s been judging, he did talk to Hari Sreenivasan about what (and who) he’s been seeing at the festival this week.

Here’s their conversation:

(Transcript after the jump.)

HARI SREENIVASAN: You’re watching The Rundown. I’m Hari Sreenivasan. We’re joined by Jeff Brown from an exotic location, and, of course, we’re talking about the Sundance Film Festival, where Jeff’s been all week. You haven’t been slacking have you? You’ve been working as a juror, which is actually quite interesting in itself. How did you get to be a juror at the Sundance Film Festival, Jeff?

JEFFREY BROWN: I got this invitation, it surprised me. It was an exciting surprise, but my first question to them was, why me exactly. They explained to me that, yes, they mostly have filmmakers, actors, all kinds of people from the film industry typically on jury duty here. But they like some outsiders and they like what we do at the Newshour, they like the arts and culture. It’s a really interesting duty, Hari. It’s 12 documentaries — I’m in the World Documentary Competition, they call it. There are four different competitions, so mine’s world documentary. I have to watch 12 documentaries, which I have just completed. It’s sort of a heroic mission, so I’m a little happy right now I’ve done that. And in the free time I get to watch other movies, which I’ve been able to do. Tonight I have to join my fellow jurors and deliberate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ok, so we don’t have to have you give away any of the secrets on the 12 that you are judging, but what’s the buzz? What are the movies that people are talking about there that perhaps aren’t in your category?

JEFFREY BROWN: Buzz sort of changes daily here about different movies. The issue here is always, what movies kind of come here and then break out from here. So there’s a few interesting ones that people are talking about. I happened to see one of them in the dramatic competitions called “Winter’s Bone,” really wonderful drama set in the Ozarks by a filmmaker I had never heard of, you know. It’s just a young woman, it’s her second film. I start asking people, do you know this director. Most everybody here had never heard of her, so it’s that kind of thing. There’s a documentary not in my competition, in fact not in any competition, but that a lot of people are talking about here called “Catfish,” which is a sort of, not quite sure how to describe it, it’s sort of a Facebook mystery, if you will, a lot of humor, a lot of poignancy. Those two of the ones that people are thinking might, you know, move beyond here to wider distribution.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Ok, and how does a film get to wider distribution? Are there sort of deals happening on the side? Are there big studio executives kind of hobnobbing with small-time filmmakers in the same theaters where you’re watching all this stuff?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, they’re in the theaters, but a lot of the stuff goes on behind the scenes, of course, I mean, because this is, while it is as I say a kind of filmmaking and film screening Mecca, a lot of the business people come here to talk to business. The talk here is the changing world of independent films. It’s from, you know, a few years ago this place had reached a kind of zenith. It was really, a lot of people here think too commercialized, so there was a lot of money being thrown at a lot of different independent films. Now when I talk to people about what’s going on: less money, fewer independent companies, less willingness to take risk, harder to get distribution for a lot of movies, of course, changing technologies, so it’s a lot easier, cheaper to make some films, but then harder to figure out how to distribute them and make some money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So speaking of celebrities, have you bumped into any?

JEFFREY BROWN: Bumping in is the right word, I think. It’s kind of a funny scene here, which I’m mostly doing my duty here, I have to tell you Hari. I’m taking it very seriously, but you walk up and down main street here and you see little pockets of people and a number of photographers standing outside of a restaurant or a club, and it’s clearly a cluster waiting because there’s been a celebrity sighted, right. So there are funny scenes that you kind of bump into or you overhear. I was walking up the street the other day and I hear somebody saying, “Joan Rivers is inside there.” And somebody else next to her says, “Joan Rivers? What is Joan Rivers doing here?” Well it turns out, there’s a documentary about Joan Rivers, which a lot of people are talking about and seem to like. So it’s funny scenes like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We’ve heard that Disney decided to close the doors on Miramax. Speaking of independent films, they were really one of the first success stories about three decades ago to pull a lot of independent films up and pour a lot of money into it. Is that news making kind of headlines out there where you are?

JEFFREY BROWN: Miramax was one of those places that distributed independent films, the smaller films, you know, not the big blockbusters, but made them into blockbusters, and had a great history of that. It really fits into what I was talking about. There are fewer of those kinds of companies doing that now, they’re taking fewer films, they’re putting less money into it, they’re taking less risk, so they’re really…here, that makes it a little harder for the filmmakers and producers about whether they are going to get picked up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Jeff Brown of the NewsHour, we’ll look forward to seeing your mug splashed across the pages of Variety and all sorts of other Hollywood mags when the paparazzi find you. Thanks so much for joining us from Sundance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. Good to talk to you Hari. See you Monday.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You’re watching the Rundown. I’m Hari Sreenivasan. Stay with us.