Sundance USA bringing 'The East' to Ann Arbor, as Michigan Theater and Russ Collins celebrate anniversaries
Todd Williamson | Associated Press
But let’s get to the really important stuff: Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford apparently spent a few minutes making a sketch of Collins during the Sundance Institute’s annual Art House Convergence conference, which happens annually in Utah just before the SFF gets under way. Collins chairs the conference.
“I’d met (Redford) before,” Collins said. “ I introduced him, and he talked with our delegates about how film affected him as a young man and influenced him as an artist. But during my introduction, he was sketching something on a pad, and at the end of the evening, a delegate who was watching (Redford) up close said, ‘He was clearly sketching your profile.’”
Six years ago, the Convergence conference had 25 attendees, while this year, 350 delegates from art house theaters across the country came together to share information and ideas.
“This is not a trade show,” said Collins. “It’s an educational forum that gathers people who are passionate about movies, and whose work is to exhibit movies and teach people about movies.”Collins stayed in Utah to enjoy this year's Sundance Film Festival, and will have seen “The East” in Park City before he returns for the film’s screening at the Michigan. The Sundance USA program brings movies from the Utah festival—along with their directors—to a handful of theaters across the country, including the Michigan.
“It’s a thriller, and we’ve had comedies up to this point, so it’s a bit of a change-up,” said Collins of "The East." (Past Sundance USA screenings in Ann Arbor featured “Cyrus,” “Win Win” and “Cedar Rapids,” and ”For a Good Time, Call ”).
“The East” co-creators Zal Batmanglij (director/screenwriter) and Brit Marling (actress/screenwriter)—who will both appear at "The East"'s screening at the Michigan—met as students at Georgetown, and they previously collaborated on a film called “Sound of My Voice.”
“Neither of them were film students, but their passion for movies obviously showed up, and they’re among a cadre of young film artists breaking through right now,” said Collins, who noted that this may be why “The East” was selected for a college town like Ann Arbor (a different SFF film is screened at each of the 10 participating Sundance USA theaters on the same night).
“The East” already has a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight.
And while previous Sundance USA programs at the Michigan have included talks with directors, stars, or producers, this year marks the first time that a SFF programmer, Trevor Groth, will be part of the post-film discussion.
“He has family in the area, so he thought he’d come out and come to the premiere,” said Collins. “ A lot of people are curious about the Michigan Theater because we’re so successful. We sell more tickets in Ann Arbor (for Sundance USA) than anywhere else.”
Collins will celebrate his own anniversary with the theater at a fundraising dinner, which will occur just before the Sundance USA program.
When Collins took the reins at the Michigan in 1982, he was a 26-year-old who’d just earned a masters degree in arts administration from University of Michigan. (“I was very confident without reason to be so,” said Collins.) At that time, the theater had recently been saved from destruction by a group of passionate volunteers.
“But after a crisis, you’ve got to figure out what to do with (a facility),” said Collins. “And it usually takes years for people to figure out how the community can best make use of a venue. The times had changed. We knew the facility was going to be used, but we weren’t sure how. I got to be in a position to help figure that out.”
Indeed, by the mid-80s, the theater’s current programming mix of live performances, community events and cinema programming was being established. And though the theater, like all arts organizations, has experienced some turbulence—as any company that manages to be around for 85 years inevitably will—it’s nonetheless become a model and a national leader among art houses at the national level.
“It’s very exciting to work in this town,” said Collins. “ A good friend of mine who’s an art house theater operator told me that the motto for 4H is ‘Making the best better,’ and really, I think that’s what a lot of people do, and what they expect, in the Ann Arbor area.”