In the mid- to late ’80s, during the month of January, visitors to the Utah ski resort town of Park City were often treated to a very peculiar sight: On Main Street, in front of the Egyptian Theater, a world-famous movie star could regularly be found cajoling random passers-by into watching some films no one had ever heard of.
Robert Redford, the box office behemoth with the artsy taste, had found yet another avenue to champion the cause that most of his colleagues derided as a fool’s errand: indie filmmaking. Within a few years, those same naysayers would be standing in line, ticket in hand, braving freezing cold temperatures in the hopes of catching the next big thing.
In 1985, Redford’s Sundance Institute, which had been hosting labs for new filmmaking talent on a property about 40 miles south of Park City, assumed control of the struggling U.S. Film Festival, a Salt Lake-based event with no particular mandate other than to show movies. “I told them I’d take the project off their hands, but I was going to be completely in charge of it and move it to Park City,” Redford remembers. “The main point was to continue to create opportunities for filmmakers and give them a place to go and show their work.”
Initially, Redford assumed he’d be able to leverage his star power and Hollywood clout to raise money for the event, just as he’d done in the 1970s, when his one-for-them, one-for-me approach to film projects allowed to him to get personal stories like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Downhill Racer” into production. He was wrong.
“The industry wasn’t interested, because they thought our approach wasn’t commercial,” he says. “But being ‘commercial’ was never the point. The point was to showcase what was being done out there, outside of Hollywood, and let the audience decide what they liked. It took five or six years before our idea began to resonate, and when it did, I realized that we might really be onto something here.”
The moment the festival began to show up on the cultural radar can be traced to the day in 1989 when a 26-year-old unknown director named Steven Soderbergh arrived in Park City for the world premiere of his debut feature, an edgy drama called “sex, lies and videotape.” The film’s astonishing success, both critically and commercially, established the Park City festival not only as a launching pad for new talent but as a place where serious money could be made.
And while Redford and his team seized on the opportunity to further their original mandate, they also found themselves in a pitched battle, in their own backyard, against the forces that he had sought to counter when he created the institute in the first place.
“We were growing in ways both good and bad,” recalls Redford. “The ‘good’ was that we were creating opportunities for filmmakers and creating a platform we could build on, specifically our documentary programming, then our international programming. The ‘bad’ was that the festival became the place to be seen, with gift bags, swag and ambush marketers trying to find a place to sell their products, with paparazzi and fashionable people coming here who had little or nothing to do with us. At a certain point, our success was so tremendous, we had to focus on how to keep the Institute from going off the rails.”
But Redford’s frustration with the encroachment of celeb culture on Park City — which was articulated a few years ago when the festival began handing out buttons with the words “Focus on Film” to attendees — has been offset by a couple of key accomplishments. The programming team continues to select films of all genres and perspectives, regardless of their commercial potential, and the Institute, which is located far from the din of the Main Street party circuit, has grown both in size and scope as a result of the festival’s success.
“I made it a policy never to be involved in the actual selection of titles, but I do get involved in the overarching creative direction of the festival,” says Redford. “Are we promoting really new work? Are we staying true to our original mission? Are we embracing diversity as much as we possibly could? If we ever get to the point where we’re not fulfilling these aims, then I’ll leave. The most important things to me are the Labs and what happens in Sundance year-round. As for Park City, we just rent that place for 10 days.”