Like clockwork, whenever Republicans control the White House or Congress or both the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which is responsible for PBS and NPR), National Endowment for the Arts (responsible for distribution of $148 million in grants to thousands of organizations) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (responsible for providing grants to museums, libraries, colleges, etc.) are called upon to justify why they should continue to receive federal funding. Ronald Reagan tried to get rid of the NEA and NEH before I was born. Newt Gingrich tried to do the same (and threw in the CPB for good measure) when I was still watching Sesame Street with my babysitter. Mitt Romney campaigned on a similar promise, by which point I was a tote-bag loving NPR addict. As such, it is with a weary eye that I look at Donald Trump’s budget proposal to de-fund the CPB, NEA and NEH and think, “This shit again?”
This shit again, indeed. The proposed elimination of the CPB, NEA and NEH is but a drop in a wide ocean of draconian, “burn the federal government to the ground and salt the ground so that nothing shall ever rise from its ashes” cuts. As Jeff Spross of TheWeek put it: “Trump’s proposed budget outline is, in a word, evil. Let me repeat: This budget is evil. It presents a demented vision of what priorities the federal government should invest its resources in.” Even Meals on Wheels has to go because, dammit, we have a border wall to build and military to beef up. As many have pointed out, the NEA’s budget of $148 million is equivalent to the cost of a single F-22 Fighter Jet. So, suck it NEA.
Sigh. Is it too late to follow Laura and her mutant pals from Logan into Canada?
Ration cautions against alarm because there’s absolutely no way Trump’s budget will pass Congress. In fact, it is so severe it seems designed explicitly to be negotiated down from the most extreme positions possible, like someone who demands $750 for an “antique” coffee table on CraigsList and laughs to themselves when they sell it for $500 even though it only ever cost them $40 bucks at a garage sale. However, moments like this afford us the opportunity to actually stop and appreciate the ways our lives have been enriched by something like the National Endowment for the Arts, which Robert Redford has repeatedly cited as being a chief contributor to the creation of the Sundance Institute.
Brief refresher: In 1979, Redford launched the Sundance Institute, and three years later the National Endowment for the Arts awarded the Institute a $25,000 grant to launch a four-week filmmaker workshop. The NEA has funded the workshop ever since, most recently awarding the workshop a $100,000 grant for 2017. That is a minuscule portion of the NEA’s $148m budget, but it could be pay big dividends down the road considering the talent which has emerged from the workshops over the years.
As Esquire’s Matt Miller pointed out, some influential directors owe their careers to the Institute:
1. Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino participated in the Sundance Directors Lab in 1991 after selling his first script, Natural Born Killers. It was through the lab that he honed his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs—which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to career-making buzz (even if it didn’t gain distribution from Miramax until months later at Cannes). Considered a milestone in independent filmmaking, Tarantino followed up his debut with his masterpiece, Pulp Fiction, in 1994.
In box office receipts alone, Tarantino’s films have now grossed $1.45 billion worldwide, $645 million domestic. They’ve also employed countless crew members and collaborators and pretty well ensured Samuel L. Jackson always has an amazing role just around the corner.
2. Wes Anderson
Originally a 13-minute short film, which premiered at the Festival in 1993, Anderson developed his debut Bottle Rocket into a feature-length movie through the support of the Institute’s Screenwriters Lab. His latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 2015.
Wes Anderson’s always modestly-budgeted movies have now grossed $448m worldwide, $231m domestic.
3. Paul Thomas Anderson
In 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson directed and wrote his first film, Sydney, through the Sundance Institute Directors Lab. This film was later retitled Hard Eight, which launched Anderson’s career in film—over the course of which he has earned six Oscar nominations.
This Anderson’s career has never quite translated into box office glory, with $235m worldwide, $131m domestic, but it was through Boogie Nights that Mark Wahlberg became a star and delivered multiple films which grossed more on their own than Anderson’s entire filmography combined. Plus, beyond the bottom line Anderson has delivered multiple outright classic movies.
4. Kimberly Pierce
During the 1997 Directors Lab, Peirce wrote and directed her debut film Boys Don’t Cry, which she began writing in the mid-’90s and attracted notable indie producer Christine Vachon. Portions of the film, then titled Take It Like a Man, premiered at the festival in 1999 before receiving a limited release later that year. Opening to critical acclaim, Boys Don’t Cry notably earned its lead Hilary Swank her first Oscar for Best Actress.
Sadly, as a woman working in Hollywood the breaks were hard to come by for Kimberly Pierce after Boys Don’t Cry, which is still her best known film. But at least it launched Hilary Swank’s career as a serious actress (Karate Kid Part 3 didn’t quite cut it) and opened a dialogue about hate crimes (since the fact-based film deals with the brutal murder of a lesbian who led her life as a man).
5. Darren Aronofsky
His first film, Pi won Aronofsky the Director’s Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Aronofsky developed his next project, Requiem for a Dream, through Sundance programs. Since then he’s gone on to make some of the most critically acclaimed films of the 21st century, including Black Swan and The Wrestler.
Box office of his 6 films: $760m worldwide, $251m domestic.
6. Cary Fukunaga
Fukunaga developed Sin Nombre, his award-winning debut, at the 2006 Directors Lab. The film premiered at the festival in 2009, earning him the Directing award. He’s since directed Jane Eyre, Beasts of No Nation, and the first season of True Detective, for which he won an Emmy for Outstanding Directing for a Drama Series.
Screw the box office with this one and just think of how integral True Detective season 1 was to attracting even more talent to HBO and revitalizing the networks’ reputation as the home of must-see dramas.
7. Ryan Coogler
In 2012, Coogler joined the Sundance Institute to develop the screenplay for Fruitvale Station. The following year, Fruitvale won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance. Released in 2013, the film won dozens of awards and earned Coogler cred in Hollywood. He went on to direct Creed in 2015 and has signed on to direct the Marvel film Black Panther.
In a more just world, both Coogler and Michael B. Jordan (also his Fruitvale Station star) would have been Oscar nominated for Creed.
We got all of them simply out of a miniscule portion of the NEA’s budget. The counterargument is that the free market will create the future Tarantino’s, and arts entities will simply be at the mercy of market forces and local whims as the federal government has no business doing anything other than building warships and walls. Plus, for every Tarantino think of all the other Sundance Institute people who never quite made it in the industry. Why can’t Robert Redford just call up his liberal Hollywood friends to float him the money for the Institute? Maybe he’ll have to if Trump gets is way.
But here’s how President Lyndon B. Johnson put it when he signed the Arts and Humanities Bill into law (thus creating the NEA, NEH and CPB) in 1965:
In the long history of man, countless empires and nations have come and gone. Those which created no lasting works of art are reduced today to short footnotes in history’s catalogue. Art is a nation’s most precious heritage, for it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.