LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off in Park City, Utah, on Thursday, is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
But festival founder Robert Redford’s involvement actually goes back to the late ‘70s with the Utah/U.S. Film Festival (which was taken over in 1984 by his Sundance Institute).
Because the festival has become America’s top launching pad for independent films, Redford knows this year’s acquisitions market is being watched closely as a barometer of the ailing indie business. But, as always, the 72-year-old filmmaker is more interested in the movies themselves.
Robert Redford: Yeah. That’s a tricky thing for me to be saying — it could look pretty selfish — but I do think there’s such a thing as too much of certain things. Look, I think there’s now festivals for neighborhoods. If that satisfies people and they continue to grow and everyone’s happy, so be it. My gut says there’s such a thing as too much information, but I don’t know.
When we started there was very little out there; now, there’s a lot. My feeling is when the day comes when we’re no longer providing the mission we started with — not creating something new for audiences, not creating opportunities for new artists to have a place to come and develop — then we shouldn’t be here, and we won’t. As long as we continue to create new advantages, we will continue, but not just to be continuing.
WHAT’S CHANGED MOST ABOUT THE FESTIVAL IN ALL THESE YEARS?
Redford: Well, the first year I was standing on the street trying to get people into the only theater that we had, the Egyptian. It was like a guy standing outside a speakeasy or something. People would say, “What are you doing here?” And I’d say, “Well, there’s a thing we’re doing.”
It wasn’t until (Columbia Pictures exec) David Putnam came up our second or third year, and he bought “The Big Easy.” That was the first turning point, and “sex, lies, and videotape” (1989’s audience award winner) was the second. Then it kinda grew from there. It was about five years before I even knew we would succeed and stay alive.
Redford: It’s a collective moment. We’re nonprofit, we’re not going to gain anything financially out of this and I’ve taken a lot of time out of my own career to try to make this thing work. So when a filmmaker comes up to me and says, “Thank you for this; it wouldn’t have happened without you,” that’s a big reward.
Redford: I don’t know. Speculation gets pretty heavy toward our festival where people try to get a jump on what they think is going to happen. The thing I’ve always enjoyed is no one knows until it’s over. Whatever the buzz is, you know, there’s buzz on one film, nobody pays attention to another one, and then that one becomes “The Blair Witch Project.” You don’t really know ‘til it’s over, so I like that. I don’t know how the economy is going to affect us; my guess is it will. But it’s not going to affect the films we show.
WE WON’T ASK YOU TO NAME THE BEST FILM YOU’VE SEEN AT SUNDANCE, BUT WHAT FILM SURPRISED YOU MOST?
Redford: There’ve been so many. (But) we were pushing documentaries so hard, so when “Hoop Dreams” (premiered in 1994), suddenly you felt something happen where that moved the needle quite a bit. Up to that point there was no documentary that had really broken through.
IS THERE SOMETHING YOU HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO DO WITH THE FESTIVAL THAT YOU’D LIKE TO?
Redford: Controlling the amount of leveragers. The festival has become a huge leveraging platform for a whole lot of people. A lot of deals are made there: The ambush marketers coming in promoting their products that have nothing to do with us, taking spaces on the street that we would give over to filmmakers — people making money off a festival they have nothing to do with. I wish that never happened. On the other hand, it’s nothing I can control, nor should I, because it’s a free country.
THE ACQUISITIONS MARKET HAS PLAYED A BIG PART IN SUNDANCE. HOW DO YOU BALANCE THE DESIRE TO FOCUS ON FILMMAKING WITH THE FACT THAT THE ALLURE OF THE FESTIVAL IS BASED, IN PART, ON THAT DREAM OF THE $10 MILLION SALE?
Redford: That’s okay. We are a festival that became a market. Since the initial objective was to create opportunities for independent artists, I can hardly bemoan the fact that their work is being purchased. That’s a wonderful thing and I have no problem with that whatsoever.
“INDEPENDENT FILM” MEANS SOMETHING TOTALLY DIFFERENT TODAY THAN IT DID IN 1984. THERE’S LITTLE DEBATE THAT SUNDANCE HELPED CHANGE THE BUSINESS, BUT WHERE DOES IT GO FROM HERE?
Redford: Someone asked me the question before, “Do you think that you’ve served your purpose now that indie film has been co-opted or absorbed by the more mainstream?” No, I feel that is fine. It’s whatever the filmmaker wants to do. If a filmmaker comes through and says, “Look, I want to stay independent” — well, that’s fine. If a filmmaker comes through as an independent artist and says, “Look, my work has now elevated me to the point where I can join the mainstream,” that’s their choice. That’s okay; that’s not our business. The business is to provide the opportunity to begin with.
Now, what I do believe will continue is there will always be room for new independent film. It’ll just be new; there’ll be some new version of independent filmmaking. The categories — the way they were shaped when I started this thing 25 years ago — have changed, but what won’t change is there will always be some new voice. They’ll have some new view that will be fresh, and that’s who we’ll be there for.
YOU WORKED WITH SO MANY GREAT FILMMAKERS IN THE ‘70S AND THEN BECAME ONE YOURSELF. ARE THERE DIRECTORS YOU FEEL HAVE EMERGED FROM SUNDANCE THAT CAN COMPETE ON THAT LEVEL?
Redford: I don’t know. I came in at the end of an era of directors who came into directing from life experience: William Wellman, Raoul Walsh. These people either came out of the war experience or came out of poverty or came out of the Depression era, and they brought into their work — particularly William Wellman — their own experiences. Then you have George Roy Hill and that group of filmmakers — Bob Mulligan, George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet — who came out of the War and they went right into television when it was just starting.
HAVE YOU DECIDED WHAT YOUR NEXT DIRECTING PROJECT WILL BE?
Redford: There are three projects. One is a story about Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, and how he got into the major (baseball) leagues — the story nobody knows. The other one is from a book called “The Company You Keep” about the people that went underground in the ‘70s, and what it was like to live as a fugitive with a false name. And there’s Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods,” about two older guys that hike the Appalachian Trail, that was meant for Paul (Newman) and I to do. They’re all three vying for who gets first position right now.
THE GAY MARRIAGE DEBATE HAS COME TO SUNDANCE VIA THE CONTRIBUTION TO THE PROP. 8 CAMPAIGN BY THE CEO OF CINEMARK THEATERS, WHICH SERVES AS A VENUE. WHAT WILL YOUR REACTION BE IF THERE ARE PROTESTS?
Redford: To try to tag the festival seems a little self-defeating, considering we broke that ground 12-14 years ago. The fact (is) diversity is the name of our game — we’ve been showing films that champion those rights a long, long time. To boycott us would seem silly.