No matter what leaps and strides independent films have made since he founded the Sundance Institute 25 years ago, to Robert Redford it feels as though it began “only yesterday.”
Reflecting back on a quarter-century of labs, workshops, initiatives and derailed projects as well as 20 years of the festival, Redford said, “It seems like everything in the past has been compressed into a very short time. All the ups and downs, the hopes and frustrations, the rollercoaster ride… Jesus, it seems like yesterday.”
Of course, it took a long time for the industry and the marketplace to evolve to the point where two of Redford’s chief passions — socially minded independent cinema and documentaries — would reach the level of acceptance from the public that they’ve now achieved. One need only point to the awards-season dominance of such films as “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Crash” and to the ongoing commercial viability of documentaries; “The March of the Penguins,” which world preemed here a year ago, is the biggest-grossing film to come out of Sundance.
All of this would have been virtually unthinkable in 1980, by which time the indie-flavored and young director-dominated American cinema of the 1970s had been crushed by the Lucas and Spielberg juggernauts, and the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco initiated the renewed dominance of the studios and producers. And yet it was then that Redford launched Sundance.
Pressed to cite what he views as Sundance’s greatest accomplishment and contribution to film culture, Redford said, “I think maybe it was starting the festival as the only festival dedicated to independent cinema. That was something new. It was difficult; it didn’t exist.” (In fact, the festival was started by others as the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City, only to be taken up by Sundance later on.)
“For me, it’s all very subjective, and it’s up to others to evaluate what the impact has been in the marketplace,” Redford continued. “But as to the filmmakers that have come through here, at the labs and the festival, there has been the constant process of watching the struggle they were going through, coming here, going to the marketplace and coming out the other side.”
Devotion to docs
Redford likes docs because they deal with issues, politics and reality, and nothing pleases him more than how conventional notions of documentary film have broken down in recent years and how much more open audiences have become to the genre.
The subjects, marketing and notoriety of numerous recent docs have brought them a bigger public, but Redford traces their accessibility more directly to a combined technical/aesthetic issue.
“It’s the camera. When the camera started to move and made them more active, that’s when audiences started to take them as real movies. When they moved away from academic talking heads and clips and into more live action, that’s when it began to change.
“We’ve reached the point where people can say, ‘You know, I’d rather see a documentary instead of a feature, because it’s real and has some form of the truth to it,” Redford said.
On the related issue of the year’s big film industry story, that of the decline in theatrical moviegoing, the vet actor-director-producer said, “I’m not so sure it’s not just a slight blip on the screen.”
His optimistic side allows him a hopeful reading of the situation: “Maybe the audience is finally making its stand against the excess of formula filmmaking with its reliance on special effects, less story and where everything veers toward violence.”
Shorts in the spotlight
Meanwhile, Sundance is forging ahead with several projects designed to give its activities greater reach. Org is placing increased importance on short films, spotlighting them and making them available online as soon as they’re shown locally. “Like documentaries in the ’80s, shorts are in that place where they have nowhere to be seen, but we’re working to change that. Plus, they’re perfect for the short attention-span viewers,” Redford joked.
Org is also moving ahead with the Sundance Institute Art House Project, in which an initial group of 14 arthouse cinemas nationwide will present packages of recent Sundance titles programmed by local curators/exhibs. Then there is the 10-day Sundance presentation in May at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which Sundance wants to develop as a New York home.