A disagreement between supporters of the Sundance Film Festival and a conservative think tank in Utah is raising questions about whether tax dollars should support the arts. The Sutherland Institute says some films screened at Sundance do not reflect Utah values.
The controversy began with a blog post on the Sutherland Institute's website. Writer Derek Monson called on Utah to end its sponsorship of Sundance because some of the movies shown there portrayed sexual promiscuity.
Paul Mero, president of the Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute, says the state should spend money on other priorities rather than subsidizing the financially successful film festival, founded by actor Robert Redford.
"It's almost like we're buying a friendship that doesn't naturally exist between Mr. Redford and the state of Utah," Mero says. "If that's the case, that's pretty pathetic."
Mero says his organization is uniformly opposed to any kind of business subsidy, and that some of the films screened this year — like a bio-drama about the late porn star Linda Lovelace — cast an immoral shadow over the festival no matter how much money it brings in.
"A lot of these film festivals are held in major cities and elite enclaves. In those circles, maybe it complements their values," Mero says. "But these highly sexualized films don't complement the values of most Americans, let alone Utahans."
On Main Street in Park City this weekend, festival goers visited the Hub, set up to act as an information center about making movies in the state. On the walls are posters of films shot in Utah, including 127 Hours and the upcoming reboot of The Lone Ranger.
The state invested $300,000 in the festival this year. In exchange, Utah's tourism logo is branded on everything from signs to brochures to lanyards. And the logo is on screen credits before each film, says Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission.
"We were a significant contributor in terms of sponsorship, but it's something we build into our budget every year, and [something] that allows Sundance to realize that the festival is important to the state," Moore says.
Moore says the festival introduces many filmmakers to Utah. "When we make trips to Los Angeles to promote Utah, we talk to 20 filmmakers in a week," Moore says. "We're getting hundreds of people through our hub every day. And it's not just film — it's tourism, and it's business, and it's new businesses considering moving their companies here."
Moore says if Utah lost Sundance, it would be devastating to the state. But it doesn't look like Robert Redford is ready to leave yet. During a press conference on the festival's opening day, he said he's not swayed by Sutherland.
"If they'd like us to go away, we'd probably take, what, $70 [million], $80 million with us — $80 million comes to the local economy in 10 days," Redford said. "Pretty good."
And for the Utah Film Commission, $80 million is an excellent return on that $300,000 investment.