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Sundance Chief John Cooper on Diversity, Trump Protests and Why Indie Film Is Going Strong

John Cooper just finished getting a chest X-ray. It’s the week before Sundance, and the film festival chief wants to know if he has pneumonia before the annual gathering of film lovers, directors, and studio executives on the prowl for the next “Little Miss Sunshine,” turns the sleepy ski town into a hotbed of activity.

But in between trips to the doctor, a sniffly, slightly hoarse Cooper walked Variety through this year’s slate. It’s a mixture of politically charged documentaries such as “Icarus” (steroids) and “City of Ghosts” (ISIS), awards-bait like the elegiac “The Hero” and the historical drama “Mudbound,” and crowd-pleasers such as “The Big Sick.” It also continues Sundance’s commitment to promoting and encouraging directors of color and female filmmakers at a time when major studio films continue to be dominated by white men. Women make up 34% of the directors at this year’s festival, an increase from 2016, while black directors comprise 10.5% of filmmakers and Hispanics make up just under 10% of filmmakers.

At a time when art house films struggle to draw audiences, Cooper says he’s still optimistic about the state of indie film, hailing a rising generation of directors who see the world differently and who aren’t afraid to take creative risks.

What issues and themes are filmmakers grappling with at this year’s festival?

When you look at independent film and the films that we chose, there’s this notion of complexity and people and places that forms a thread of inclusion through the whole festival. It examines this whole human side of who we are as a people.

One of the big things is the environment and films about the environment. Syria has loomed large in the programming. There’s three films from different points of view on the Syrian crisis. A secondary theme is the use of what people call citizen journalism. That’s the videos and images captured on the ground by people on the front lines both on the police brutality front and the problems in the Middle East front. They make for such powerful images. I find it hard to look at sometimes, but it’s still very powerful.

There are movies about race, religion, LGBT rights in other countries. I don’t think we would have seen these films out of these countries ten years ago or five years ago. They were always there, but maybe they couldn’t get funding. Maybe they were playing it safe but then they realized what’s going to set you apart is really going for it.

Donald Trump’s presidential victory took place after these films were made, but do you think that the election and the political issues that were debated will be reflected in this year’s festival?

I would think of that a little differently. It didn’t seem like hardly any issues were being discussed. That was the sad thing about the process, the lead up, the debate. The talk was all so personal and almost strange in that way. I didn’t hear climate change mentioned that much. I didn’t hear Syria mentioned in any real way. We were way into the programming the night of the election. We had final decisions to make, but it didn’t influence us in our selection. Does it have a different glow and a different feeling afterwards? Well, yeah, now it does.

What do you mean by the films having a different feeling after the election?

You perceive them differently. A film you programmed because it was well made and important and projected an issue like “City of Ghosts,” which is about journalists in Syria, after the election where you’re thinking about what our different international strategies are as a country, it has a different resonance. Or “Beatriz at Dinner” with Salma Hayek is all about a less-privileged Latin American woman up against a big real estate tycoon at a dinner party where fate put them together. That definitely looks different after the election.

Is Sundance involved in planning the the Women’s March protesting Trump’s election in Park City?

We’re not involved in the women’s march formally. I know a lot of our people will probably march in it and we believe in freedom of speech. Anything that happens along those lines is like part of the party to me. In programming, there was more issues around the women’s march and who is going to that in terms of scheduling premieres and knowing where talent was. That makes things much more complicated.

When you took over as the director of the Sundance Film Festival in 2009, it was a tough time for indie filmmakers. The financial crisis had happened. Studios were shuttering their arthouse divisions. Has the indie film business recovered?

I think it’s stronger than when I took over. One is the development of talent and talent that is willing to go into the independent film community and support it, especially from well-known actors, well-known cinematographers and writers. The bar keeps getting raised. Look at Damien Chazelle. I was at the Golden Globes the other night, he set a new bar, and he came out of independent film. I don’t feel that independent film is stagnating at all, I think that a whole new wave of young people is coming to just work our minds in different ways.

From the financial side, the players keep shifting with Amazon, Netflix, and the Showtimes and HBOs of the world. They’re all supporting very original storytelling. The development of television. It just keeps getting better and they’re not afraid of taking on harder issues and more interesting subjects. When you go into those realms and telling those stories it keeps people engaged.

Sundance has done a lot in the past to promote female filmmakers and directors of color. Do diversity and inclusion continue to be a focus for the festival?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t see it as solving an issue or something. It’s just organic. We always went out trying to find the most interesting stories, the most interesting subjects in film, the most interesting documentaries. Naturally through that we started to encourage women filmmakers and diverse filmmakers in terms of race and gender and sexual preference. It’s been growing and we have a legacy of doing that.

But to tell you the truth, I never worked that hard to get diversity in the festival. It just happens. It’s coming out of the community and the people who make the films. I must say, we don’t talk about it very often, but the producers and the financiers are a big part of this. They’re not shying away from subjects like this. They’re the quiet heroes in the industry right now.

A lot of Sundance coverage focuses on what films are inspiring bidding wars. What’s selling and for how much? Does that take away from the mission of the festival?

When I meet with filmmakers we always have a talk with them, and I always want them to remember what the true stories are. A lot times a lot of sales happen after the festival. You may be on a plane going home and you’ve had three screenings, but you didn’t sell your film. It’s about getting them prepared for that. A lot of filmmakers should remember that this is one film and they should try to think of their careers and use this time to try to meet other filmmakers. Lots of great friendships can be found here. You can meet colleagues and collaborators and to get a fuller sense of this community. It’s important not to miss that, because in the end, that’s what’s most important. That’s what sustains their career.

“Birth of a Nation” was supported by the Sundance Institute and it had a triumphant reception when it premiered at last year’s festival. It ultimately failed at the box office after reports broke that Nate Parker, its main creative force, had been accused of raping a college classmate. What is your reaction to the fate of the film?

We selected that film on its creative merits, so I was really excited when it got the attention that it got. I still think there’s a life for the film that’s going to keep going. I don’t think it’s over yet. I think that was like a moment that was a confusing moment for a lot of people on both sides of that too. It was very interesting to watch. I’m so proud of the part that we played in getting that film recognized.

Last year, Parker and the crew created the “Birth of a Nation” fellowship at the Sundance Institute to help filmmakers of color. Will that program and its mission continue?

Absolutely, because that mission is our mission. It’s pretty easy to keep that going. We don’t take on things like that if they’re not part of our mission already.

What is a typical day for you at the festival?

I get up early even though I went to bed late. That’s the part I hate. I do a lot of things. There’s lots of handholding to do, so I do a lot of the intros. These are world premieres, so there’s lots of nerves and there are lots of filmmakers who are pretty novice to this. That’s part of being there, getting the thing started, doing the Q&As. We have films that start at eight in the morning and films that start at midnight, so those are long days. I don’t do midnights any longer. I’m too old.

I spend a lot of time in the car, darting in and out of places. I’m trying to slow it down it a bit, so when I dart in somewhere, I’m still having real experiences, and maybe some deeper moments during the festival.

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