Amanda HirschFreelance writer Amanda Hirsch, former editorial director of PBS Interactive, blogs about documentaries and the Web in her weekly column, Outside the Frame.

I’ve been to Sundance. Yes, me! I’m no filmmaker, no deal-maker, no publicist — heck, I don’t even own a pair of Uggs — but I’ve had the incredible, memorable and exhilarating experience of attending the Sundance Film Festival, not once, but twice: in 2005, and again in 2006. Here’s a picture to prove it: that’s me in the glamorous white knit hat:
Amanda Hirsch at the Sundance Film Festival

Amanda Hirsch at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

I was there on behalf of PBS Interactive, the PBS department focused on extending the reach and impact of PBS content online and on other digital platforms. As someone who worked with dozens of talented interactive producers — people who poured their creativity into telling stories online — it was incredibly frustrating to find interactive storytelling absent from the agenda. There was an excellent session on video on demand, I remember, and one about blogging, but they were discussions about business models, not storytelling. Not to mention, the festival’s website that year was horrible — it was impossible to navigate. It pretty clear that to the festival’s organizers, the web was still an unimportant stepchild.

In other words, the message I got was: indie filmmakers are creative heroes who sacrifice everything for their art; the web is just about distribution and marketing.

Four years later, I wonder, how far have we come? How many people with backgrounds in film or television really accept that the Web is a rich creative outlet, instead of a place where a filmmaker or media company just needs to have a presence in order to be “hip” or “relevant”?

Don’t get me wrong — I understand that Sundance is a film festival, not a Web or media festival; it has no obligation to celebrate the art of online storytelling. I use it merely as an example, and take the occasion of Sundance ’09 as an opportunity to check in on the film community’s attitudes towards the Web.

If this year’s Sundance website is any indication, the indie film world is beginning to embrace the power of the Web beyond marketing and distribution. This year’s site is well-designed and, dare I say, content-rich: there’s a gallery of posters and photos from festivals past, a Twitter feed, a blog and other features that not only promote festival fare, but help bring the experience — the story — of the festival to life online. I was most intrigued by the Storytime feature — profiles of festival attendees ranging from ordinary audience members to VIPs. I love the spirit behind this, even though I’d say its execution is pretty flat — I’d rather see something like the visual thesaurus that could embody the relationships and shared interests of the masses of people involved with the fest.

What do you think — has the Web sparked the creative interest of the film community, or is it still seen as primarily a vehicle for marketing and distribution? If you were at Sundance this year, what were your impressions of attendees’ attitudes towards the Web? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Amanda Hirsch is former editorial director of PBS Interactive.