A Minute With: Sundance festival director John Cooper

PARK CITY, Utah Thu Jan 20, 2011 8:46am EST

Ticket buyers exit a box office before the start of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 19, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Ticket buyers exit a box office before the start of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, starting 10 days of movie screenings at the largest gathering of the year for U.S. independent filmmakers.

Movies screened here will become some of the hot titles of the year among low-budget and art house movies. Hollywood calls them "specialty" films. Last year's "The Kids Are All Right" screened here, as did "Blue Valentine" and "Winter's Bone."

Festival director John Cooper, Sundance's chief programer, spoke to Reuters about Sundance 2011, the tone of this year's movies, which were chosen from 3,812 entries, and current industry trends.

Q: When you pick films for Sundance, do you have themes in mind or particular types of movies you want to screen?

A: "No. We do the opposite. What we do is set categories like this year's "Next" section (for very low-budget work) or "Premieres" that movies fit into. That is how it works. We're not ever looking for a theme or expecting one because we'd always be chasing our tails."

Q: Then, from this year's selections, did any themes emerge? Put another way, what's on filmmakers' minds?

A "In the broadest sense, there seems to be a very eclectic and personal view of the world. We found the stories coming from an authentic place, very personal, and not so much worrying about commercial possibilities. They are sticking more to the truth within themselves and the stories they have to tell. That said, there are several films dealing with religion, faith and redemption, and we kind of can't help but think it has something to do with the world we are living in."

Q: Sundance is a huge event. Is it still a place where young filmmakers can get in without having a connection?

A: "That idea is absolutely false. (Media) stories coming out of the festival tend to be about the bigger films and that is what permeates the major media. But when you actually stand in the room with the filmmakers here, and look around, that fact becomes all the more clear."

Q: On the topic of young or first-time filmmakers, how has cheaper, digital filmmaking changed the dynamics of movies?

A: "The independent film world can stay more independent, be more eclectic and diverse with their storytelling. They (filmmakers) seem to be drawn to that, and they are holding true to it ... that divide between big Hollywood. There was a moment eight or 10 years ago, where the two were blending together -- but now it seems Hollywood is going to get bigger and we are going to get, almost, smaller and more diverse."

Q: In recent years, for various reasons, the market has been in a slump among buyers and sellers of movie rights. Many have gone out of business. What's the business climate like?

A: "We, of course, have talked to a lot of the buyers. There are a lot of new ones and a lot that seemed like they were on hiatus for awhile are back. So, that's exciting. I think there will be a lot of market activity. Then there's that whole new wave of filmmakers that may be self-distributing. So many new avenues are opening up to them. That's exciting, too. It's still very new and still some of it is more informational, but we're starting to see it happening more and more."

Q: Every year there are panels on numerous topics about film and art. Why the panels? Why not just show movies?

A: "It's all community building and it really is a place where people can gather to have a voice. Watching a film is sort of a one-sided thing, so the panels are a good outlet for discussion ... Sometimes people find these things and it makes the festival not so overwhelming.

"The New Frontier section (a blending of cinema, art and technology) is the epitome of another experience. We have more heat around that this year."

Q: Every year, movies come to Sundance with buzz in the industry and media, but they fail with audiences. And every year, there are surprises that no one saw coming. Why?

A: "It's part of what I love about the festival. It happens. I can't even plan that. You can't artificially create buzz, in a way. It has to come from people seeing those films. I think of it a lot when we are slotting the films, so that's one of the reasons we changed opening night as well (screening four movies instead of one), so it starts the talk at the festival earlier and faster. You just have to talk to people, push your limits and ask people what they like, what they thought. And that is part of what the magic is."

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