Three leather accent chairs sit empty in front of the Sundance Film Festival backdrop on the stage of the Egyptian Theater for a good twenty minutes past the starting time of the opening press conference (PC). As each additional minute pass the anticipation in the house dwindles wondering if there might be something amiss until the stage hands indicate that it is a good-to-go launch and part the double black curtains to allow entrance for Robert Redford, John Cooper and a female guest. A warm round of applause greet them as they take the stage and find their seats.
Robert Redford (President and Founder of Sundance Institute) avoids sitting at first and while standing, he removes his hat and coat, and casually takes the next few moments to greet the press and thank everyone for coming. Redford wastes no time to share highlights of the festival origins and to answer the question as to why we are all here celebrating another year of the Sundance Film Festival’s success. The Sundance story is unique and Redford shares it best.
His journey back in time begins in 1980. He was a part of a group of people that had a vision to create a place for independent filmmakers to show their work. A place the visionaries connected to was at a location forty miles from Park City, Utah called Sundance. The group began to grow into a community of like minds and eager to share their vision. Their mission was simple: to provide a place and an opportunity for work to be seen that the mainstream market place was not willing to embrace. The preparation for this mission led up to the film festival roughly five years later and they had actual film projects needing an audience.
The first film debut attracted a very small crowd, at the Egyptian theater, even though the organizers went out on the street and begged people to join the celebration of the early years of independent filmmaking. The Redford’s signature smile illuminated his face and recalls, “Our guests were all excited for the screening until they realized the three hour film was a reality. We slowly we lost our crowd. We learned something that day!” Redford changes the subject a bit and adds, “We started on a shoe string and I felt bad about that at the time.” It was only later that he saw the positive effect from not having enough money or support because creativity developed out of a desire to survive. He proudly mentioned, “Working on a shoe string was not a bad thing and it has become a part of our core to keep that shoe string in place. For all these years, it has felt very right.”
The festival started out with using one theater, the Egyptian Theater located on the old frontier style thoroughfare called Main Street of Park City, Utah. It was the platform the group needed to launch independent filmmaker’s projects and a place to build upon. Today we see projects like the documentary (Redford’s passion), international projects, short films, art in film all have a place and an audience. Redford observed that over time he saw the support of the independent filmmaker to create an avenue for their story to be heard had grown; and, the festival attendee was given options through film in storytelling that they didn’t get anywhere else, thus the reason for the success of the festival.” The opportunities have been endless for the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival organizers as one venture builds upon the other making for a solid foundation for a successful market for independent filmmaking. The core value is still the same, a joy to lean into its philosophy: to provide a place where filmmakers can be heard, learn and show their work. The core questions will always be in the forefront: what are we doing? And, why are we here? And, what’s the point of all this? The core mission continues to give the Sundance Institute and Film Festival its identity and Redford says it best, “We will do everything we can to create opportunities for artists to tell their stories because stories unite us.”