Duo launch new sidebars, revamp opening night

As Sundance launches its 2010 edition tonight, under new management, the fest might not look drastically different from prior years, but some subtle tweaks might prove significant as the year unfolds.

Newly upped toppers, fest director John Cooper and programming head Trevor Groth, who have both been with the festival for many years, took the better part of 2009 to ponder how they might do things differently after the departure of longtime Sundance chief Geoff Gilmore (who joined the Tribeca Enterprises).

Among the key changes reflected at this year’ fest: a different format for opening night and the addition of a new programming section called Next, focused on micro-budget filmmaking.

And rather than one opening night film, Sundance will bow with several: One narrative feature from the U.S. dramatic competition (Allen Ginsberg drama “Howl,” starring James Franco), one from the U.S. documentary competition (Afghanistan war chronicle “Restrepo”) and a four-film shorts program that includes work from Spike Jonze and Rory Kennedy. The inclusion of shorts, says Groth, is an emphatic support of the format by Sundance.

Opening night felt like we were still waiting to get started, where we stalled and talked some more about ourselves,” says Cooper. “We decided to start the American competition, and take a little of the formality off of it. My feeling is, let’s get down to business.”

Cooper says fest founder Robert Redford will make an appearance, as is tradition on opening day, starting with an afternoon press conference held at Park City’s Egyptian Theater.

In terms of the festival’s program groupings, what was the rationale behind Next?

Part of our mission here is to follow the filmmaking community and what they’re doing and providing what’s necessary,” Cooper explains. “A few years ago, it was making sure filmmakers could connect with the people buying films. That’s when we started the Industry Office, to connect the dots. In the last few years, we were not giving enough attention to the low- or no-budget films.”

Cooper had wondered whether creating a program was necessary, given that all of the fest’s sections include low-budget films in one form or another. “Filmmakers know what it is, but audiences may not,” he says, adding that Next was created so that auds could make a more direct connection with work made in the DIY filmmaking spirit.

‘Paranormal Activity’ happened right after we announced it,” Cooper continues. “And I thought, ‘Yes, there it is!’ “

Other programming changes this year include the elimination of the Spectrum category and the creation of Spotlight, which is “still in its formation a little bit,” admits the fest chief. “The guiding factor is to show films we love — perhaps films that somehow didn’t make it into another section or had played at other festivals.”

Among the Spotlight pics are Cannes fave “A Prophet,” Toronto gem “I Am Love” and eco doc “Climate Refugees,” which has shown on Capitol Hill and at the Copenhagen Climate Conference.

The fest is also showing fewer films overall, despite a higher number (3,700-plus) of submissions. Says Cooper, “We’ve averaged 120 films over the years and it’s slightly less this year.”

Cooper adds that his approach to viewing potential selections is more hands-off than Gilmore’s. “Geoff was more in the trenches. I waited until the programmers had watched stuff,” he says of his routine for the 2010 edition.

A lot of Cooper’s time in his first year atop the fest was spent on big-picture ideas. The Sundance Film Festival USA initiative, which transfers eight films from the fest to eight cities around the country on Jan. 28, was among the programs to emerge from the brainstorming. Sundance will also partner with Rainbow Media’s VOD platform Sundance Selects to brand a “Direct From the Sundance Film Festival” showcase in which three fest films will be made available to cable and satellite viewers on-demand during the course of the fest and after.

And, in partnership with YouTube (sponsor of the Next section), 21 shorts will go up for free on the clip-driven site today. In addition, five features from this year’s fest and the 2009 fest will be available for rent on YouTube through Jan. 31.

Sundance’s arrangement with iTunes, which was also revenue-based, expired a couple of years ago. Groth says the fest had hoped for some breakout successes but these didn’t happen; however, he says, “Some filmmakers got a nice little check.” Some were as high as $20,000, substantial for a short.

Sundance brass remain bullish on the prospect for acquisitions at this year’s fest. “But what the prices are going to be, I don’t know,” says Groth, adding that “the ballooned price model wasn’t working — we have to figure out the right value for these films.”

Though seeing 2009 fest prizewinner “Precious” connect with audiences (with more than $44 million at the U.S. box office so far), he says, “gives everyone hope.”

Fox Searchlight’s chief buyer Tony Safford says he’d like to find at least one pickup at the festival, but that there are no obvious contenders. “Sometimes going into the festival we know there’s a ‘Little Miss Sunshine,’ ” he says, “But there might not be something as screamingly commercial this year.”

While more filmmakers are going the DIY distribution route lately, there are still those who think a seven-figure studio deal is within reach. (These could be counted on one hand at recent fests.) As one buyer says, “I’m both heartened and horrified. They’re going to be so disappointed.”

TIP SHEET

What: Sundance Film Festival

When: Today through Jan. 31

Where: Park City, Utah

Web: Sundance.org

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more