Thirty Years Ago, Trey Parker and Matt Stone Hijacked the Sundance Film Festival

It’s hard to believe that Robert Redford rejected ‘Cannibal! The Musical’
Thirty Years Ago, Trey Parker and Matt Stone Hijacked the Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival is currently underway, the annual event in which Hollywood bigwigs and independent filmmakers endure sub-zero temperatures in order to celebrate cinematic excellence (now with more flatulent, fornicating Sasquatches). This month also marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most important, highly-influential screenings in the history of Sundance, involving a movie that was in no way accepted to screen at Sundance. 

In 1993, South Park creators, and archenemies of Scientology, Trey Parker and Matt Stone made their first movie, Cannibal! The Musical (originally called Alferd Packer: The Musical). The low-budget Western comedy began as a college film class project, and evolved into a feature-length allegory for Parker’s failed relationship with a woman who, not coincidentally, shared the same name as the lead character’s horse.

Parker submitted Cannibal! The Musical to the 1994 Sundance festival. Not only did it not get in, it didn’t even warrant so much as a rejection letter. But as Parker told co-producer Jason McHugh at the time, he had experienced a “vision” that their film would be part of the fest, so the filmmakers decided to manifest their own Sundance screening. McHugh called up the Yarrow Hotel in Park City, Utah expecting to be “laughed at,” but instead, he was able to book a conference room and set up five screenings. Next, they hired a projection crew, and “papered the town” advertising the guerrilla event. If all that wasn’t enough, Parker and company cold-called MTV and told them that they should do a story on the “MTV generation” upstarts who had just crashed Sundance, which they did. 

The hijacking of Sundance led to Parker and Stone making connections that included securing a lawyer and an agent. As McHugh recalled, it “paved the way for us to couch surf through Hollywood.” It also led to Sundance (and not just a hotel near Sundance) screening the duo’s first-ever South Park short film The Spirit of Christmas in 1997 and their Mormon-turned-porn star comedy Orgazmo the year after that. 

In the years that followed, Parker and Stone still seemed somewhat bitter about the whole experience. As Stone told an interviewer in 2006, “When we could have really used Sundance, when we really were independent filmmakers, they rejected our (film) ... and then when they wanted The Spirit of Christmas it was after we were already big hits and we didn’t need their help.” Then, of course, there’s the South Park episode “Chef’s Chocolate Salty Balls,” which was hardly a glowing endorsement of the festival.

Amazingly, the influence of the Cannibal! The Musical stunt can still be felt in Park City today, because it directly contributed to the creation of the Slamdance Film Festival in 1995. The founders of the “subversive” alternative to Sundance had the same lawyer as Parker and Stone, and stories of the pair’s rogue counter-programming partly inspired the creation of the new festival. What a shpadoinkle turn of events. 

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