Redford: Content counts

Sundance founder reflects on biz

PARK CITY, Utah — “I don’t count on anything in this business,” Robert Redford admitted as he reflected upon the ever-accelerating pace of change in the entertainment world. “You have to create your own sense of permanence wherever you can find it.”

Redford alighted in Utah over the weekend to help launch 2000 Sundance, as the banners and program somewhat awkwardly refer to the current edition of the film fest, before he departs today to begin editing his latest picture, “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” in New York.

On Friday Redford gave special attention to Sundance’s documentary division and introduced the premiere of “Joe Gould’s Secret” in the absence of director-star Stanley Tucci, whose wife was giving birth to twins. On Saturday Redford presided, as usual, over the annual filmmakers’ brunch, where he reassured this year’s group of eager and anxious young entrants that he, too, had been in their shoes, with independent-spirited films having no sure future in the world.

Subsequently, in an interview with Daily Variety, Redford provided an update on his various pursuits, Sundance-related and otherwise. With the festival running smoothly, Redford’s continuing gripe is with “the buzz and the hype, which doesn’t mean anything and which the filmmakers should just ignore.” He feels particularly vindicated in his view now because of what happened last year with “The Blair Witch Project,” which turned into the biggest success in independent film and, consequently, Sundance history.

“No one knew about that film coming into the festival,” he said. “It was shown at midnight, and people weren’t really talking about it that much afterward. The industry professionals all pooh-poohed it. Some people found it scary, but I personally think its success came from its combination of the commercial and the documentary, plus the Internet.”

The first two Sundance Cinemas complexes open within a few months — in Portland, Ore., in April and in Philadelphia in late summer — with more in various stages of planning. In New York, the Sundance Cinemas will be at Astor Place and, later, on the Upper West Side, while in Los Angeles, Sundance is in the midst of complicated negotiations for Santa Monica’s old Aero Theater on Montana — a house dear to Redford’s heart since it was his childhood neighborhood theater, where he saw countless Saturday matinees.

Money matters

And while he is generally happy with the way the Sundance Channel has been developing, Redford acknowledged that the ever-changing corporate backing of the cable operation is symptomatic of what troubles him about the industry today.

“Our management partners have changed three times — there are three different entities we’ve been dealing with in three years. … There just isn’t any permanence anymore. I’m still who I am, but the partners keep changing, so my idea is to avoid too many split partnerships that are not likely to be permanent, which are most of the studios.

“I always think of what is the relationship between a large corporate entity and the artist, and they’re so fickle and tenuous and are all about the relationships. You’re at the mercy of all this,” he said, “and if that parent gets divorced or dies, that’s it. You can’t count on anything.”

Even though Sundance is loaded this year with seminars such as “Using the Internet to Market and Promote Your Film” and “Excite — Future of Video on the Web,” and with untold numbers of representatives from new showbiz Web sites running around town, Redford takes a longer and more cautious view of the new technological breakthroughs.

Them thar hills

“It’s like a gold rush, with everyone leaving their positions and what they’ve been doing and heading for the California gold,” he said. “It’s an American trait to jump before we know what we’re doing, because we don’t want to miss out.

“When you start seeing mergers between AOL and Time Warner, with new companies buying up venerable blue chip companies, you say, ‘What’s going to happen? Where do you want to be when there’s a sea change and there’s a depression and the economic rug is pulled out from under us?’

“It’s my black Irish side coming out — I can hear my grandmother talking in my ear — but I suspect that we aren’t too far away from the turn, and where are we going to be if we’re committed to air and hype? If we’re too unprepared for it, it truly will be Rome,” Redford emphasized, “when the barbarians came down from across the borders and the empire really fell.

“When a culture is entirely devoted to celebrity and success, which we are, as you can tell just by looking at the covers of magazines on the newsstand, something is off about the culture,” he opined.

“I think the future is going to be with content, not with technology. Now, we’re totally committed to technology, but I don’t want to hang my hat on it. …The young directors I meet today are incredibly smart and knowledgeable and sophisticated. But the ones that were still working in Hollywood when I began — Raoul Walsh, William Wellman, John Ford, Howard Hawks –didn’t know much about filmmaking when they started. But they knew about life. I want to be on the side of content.”

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