Dancing with Herald

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The 2005 Sundance Film Festival ended yesterday after 11 days of shmoozing, partying and occasionally watching movies in Park City. Many celebrities were on hand to celebrate the world of independent film and to enjoy Utah’s rustic splendor, at least until their own movies were done screening, at which point they resumed hating middle America and fled back to L.A.

This was my sixth year covering the festival as a writer and critic. This year and last were as a freelancer; the four years before that were for a Provo, Utah, newspaper I worked for called The Daily Herald. Working for that paper was odd in general, but never more so than every January, when Sundance rolled around. Join me now as I stumble down memory lane and recall some key moments in my relationship with the Sundance Film Festival and the Daily Herald.

2000: I had been working full-time as a features writer at the Herald for only seven months when the film festival came around, and I was just beginning to convince my bosses that my capabilities extended beyond writing stories about women who made nativity scenes out of Popsicle sticks and old ladies who were turning 100 yet had never left the town of Payson, Utah.

The Herald had always covered Sundance before, but generally half-heartedly and cluelessly. (To be fair, this was how the paper tackled most other issues, too.) Now that they had someone on staff who was moderately knowledgeable and extremely eager to write about Sundance, the managing editor, Mike, told me to go whole-hog. See as many movies as I could! he said. Write little reviews of them! he said. Give us the whole scoop! I enthusiastically complied with his requests.

However, I was not yet a salaried employee, and when I turned in my time card after a week of pre-festival screenings, it had 20 hours of overtime on it — the result of seeing as many movies as I could, writing little reviews of them, and giving them the whole scoop. On day four of the festival, I received a panicked phone call from Mike urging me to stop seeing movies at once.

The jig was up. Faced with the fact that covering Sundance cost money, my bosses had decided that “covering Sundance” just meant being lazy and watching movies all day. I don’t know what they think it is when sports writers watch football games, but apparently that’s OK, because the Herald was always quick to spend thousands of dollars to send our sports guys to faraway places to watch Brigham Young University lose at some pastime or other. But a world-renowned film festival being held an hour away from our office, that’s frivolous.

2001: Mike was still the boss, but the paper had just launched a new entertainment-specific wing of its Web site and Mike was eager to try it out. He wanted me to cover Sundance again and post reviews each night on the site — same-day reviews and up-to-the-minute reports! What could be more exciting than that?

I was salaried by now, so the millions of hours it would take didn’t matter. I was editor of the features section now, too, but as long as I could get that work done in addition to my Sundance duties, Mike didn’t care how much time I spent in Park City. So I put the section on auto-pilot, ran a bunch of Associated Press stories and local articles about women who knit scarves for homeless dogs, and moved into my friend’s cabin near Park City to live full-time. It was my goal to not even set foot in Provo for the duration of the festival, and I am pleased to say I met that goal.

2002: I had a new boss now. Mike was gone, and the new managing editor was Mike (but a different one). The new Mike, who went by the nickname “the Rev” due to having sent off for a minister’s license one night while drunk and in college, was a congenial, easy-going sort of man, by far my favorite boss I’ve ever had. He let me do whatever I wanted in the features section — movie reviews, theater reviews, whatever — as long as the section maintained a modicum of quality and as long as “Snide Remarks” was funny. He stayed out of my way, I stayed out of his way, and we enjoyed a friendly working relationship.

Nonetheless, he never really “got” the whole movie review thing. He had the disease that a lot of newspaper editors have — not alcoholism (though that too), but the disease where you assume that if YOU aren’t interested in something, neither are the readers. The Rev didn’t go to the movies and thus didn’t read movie reviews, and thus assumed our readers didn’t, either. Conversely, the Rev was a huge sports fan and thus reasoned that the latest wins and losses of the BYU football team should go on the front page (next to the latest arrests and convictions of the BYU football team, an organization that commits rape more often than it commits fumbles).

So it was an uphill battle persuading the Rev to let me “take a week off work” and cover Sundance. Finally I convinced him by offering to write a “Snide Remarks” column every day during the festival, for five days straight. He was a big “Snide Remarks” fan, and the thought of reading one every day for a week softened his big, Scotch-soaked heart.

2003: The Rev was gone now, as were many of his cronies, after a big shake-up. The new managing editor was named Randy, and in order to focus my attention on writing (my strength) as opposed to running the features section (the bane of my existence), I had been made “senior features writer” and a new features editor had been brought in. Her name was Crazy Crazy Jean.

CCJ and I got along swimmingly (up until the time that she got me fired, but that’s another story), and we had one goal in mind: to cover the heck out of Sundance. We wanted her, me and another features writer in Park City full-time. We wanted to give the Salt Lake papers a run for their money in terms of festival coverage.

What we REALLY wanted, of course, was just to GO to the festival, and for the Herald to cover our expenses. But we had to formulate a good pitch to sell Randy on the idea.

We knew it would be tough because we had begun to face a very real problem: People who live in Provo don’t care about Sundance. They don’t go to the festival; they don’t care what movies play there; they aren’t interested in the film industry, or in fine art in general. The word “provincial” comes to mind when I think of Provoans, although that may be an insult to some of the finer provinces I’ve visited.

The point is, Mike and the Rev were right to limit our coverage of the festival. We should address it nominally, of course — it is a news event, after all — and give it some restrained attention. But a writer covering it full-time? For our readers, that was overkill. And THREE writers covering it full-time? Even overkiller (or possibly “more overkiller”).

Crazy Crazy Jean and I knew this but made a pact to ignore it when making our pitch to Randy. Instead, we would convince him that Sundance warranted all the attention we could muster, and that we were just the writers to do the mustering.

Now, you should know something about Randy: He’s insane. His behavior is marked by impulsive decisions and brief bursts of energy, followed by a period of forgetting what he was doing and moving on to something else. He was easily swayed — not by staff members, but by readers. If a reader called him directly and said, for example, “I think the Herald should run a weekly column about trees,” he would burst out of his office as if shot from a cannon, aimed at us — his cockamamie reader-inspired ideas usually fell under the features category — declaring, “Trees! We’re going to do a weekly column about trees! It will start next week! Jean, find a staff member or a freelancer to write the column! Get the graphics department involved so we can run photos of whatever trees we’re writing about every week! Trees! Everyone loves trees!” And we would nod and pretend to agree, knowing that in a day or so he would be distracted by a shiny object and forget he’d ever said anything about a trees column.

Meanwhile, if a staffer were ever to approach Randy about doing a trees column, Randy would squint at the person and declare his idea stupid. (Which of course it would be.) So Crazy Crazy Jean and I weighed our options. We could bribe a reader to call in and suggest to Randy that we provide extensive Sundance coverage, but that was risky. For one thing, we didn’t know any actual readers who thought that. For another thing, Randy might see through the ruse and get mad at us.

But then we remembered: Randy hated his predecessor the Rev and disliked all of his policies on principle alone simply because the Rev had thought of them. So when CCJ and I laid out our proposal for Sundance coverage, and Randy was getting that squinty look in his eyes, I casually added, “Now, in the past, we haven’t done much with Sundance. The Rev didn’t think it was ‘interesting’ to our readers.” I said this with great incredulity, the subtext being, “Can you believe what a moron the Rev was?,” when of course in secret I agreed with him.

That’s all it took. Upon hearing that the Rev ignored Sundance, Randy became a staunch pro-Sundance advocate. He authorized us to reserve two hotel rooms in the Park City area for the festival, and to send three writers up there full-time. There would be front-page coverage, and each day’s features section would have a page devoted to it. He would cover our gasoline and food expenses. All told, it would cost the paper well over $1,000, but it was worth it — not in terms of reader response, because of course the readers didn’t care, but in terms of CCJ, another writer and me getting to spend all our time at the film festival for free.

2004: By now I didn’t work at the Herald anymore, Randy having extended his well-known impulsive behavior into the realm of firing people. Crazy Crazy Jean didn’t work there anymore, either, because I got her fired two weeks after she got me fired. (Note to journalists: Don’t rat on one of your colleagues for committing a vague ethical violation when you yourself have been plagiarizing CD reviews on a regular basis.)

But my friend Smacky still worked at the Herald, and he was one of the writers covering the festival. Randy had not realized that the previous year’s exploits had been a waste of Herald resources, so the same plan was in effect, including the two hotel rooms. Smacky’s room had a couch with a fold-out bed, so he let me share his room — which means even after the Herald fired me, it continued to pay my way at Sundance.

2005: Smacky doesn’t work at the Herald anymore, and the writer I know who’s covering Sundance is a married woman, so sharing her hotel room probably wouldn’t be appropriate (or even pleasant, if her husband were staying there, too). So I was on my own this year, covering Sundance with no assistance whatsoever from the paper that fired me 17 months ago. But I did run into another Herald writer, an old pal of mine, who told me that Randy is still crazy, still hasn’t caught on to the whole Sundance scam, and that the Rev and Crazy Crazy Jean are working for different newspapers in — where else? — Florida, land of the crazies. Maybe I’ll get press credentials for the Miami Film Festival and share a hotel room with them there.

It's not gossip if it's true, and if it's more than a year old. You can quote me on that.

Crazy Crazy Jean, who I absolutely adored approximately half the time, was one of the most entertaining people I've ever known. Like my old roommate Raoul, I could probably write a column about her every week and never run out of material, except that unlike Raoul, I actually enjoyed having adventures and hijinks with her. It was she whose dogs I took care of in January 2003, by the way. And it was sad when she became crazy and unbearable, which was about every other week.

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