On the 10th anniversary of his Sundance Institute’s involvement in the film festival here devoted to American independent cinema, Robert Redford expressed certainty that technological innovations and the further diversification of distribution outlets will lead to greater opportunities for indie filmmakers.
Content to let the question of what’s commercial at the festival sort itself out, Redford expressed renewed commitment to documentaries, short subjects, political filmmaking and a sense of long-term continuity, while keeping the size and balance of the fest within manageable bounds.
At a Sundance press conference Saturday and in an exclusive interview with Daily Variety, Redford acknowledged that while a new computerized ticket system, a 30% expansion in seating capacity and improved shuttle bus transport will improve the experience for audiences, the ever-increasing profile of the fest means that every year there are more filmmakers disgruntled over their films not getting in.
Putting things in perspective, 10 years ago the fest attracted about 400 people and had five sponsors. This year, Park City will accommodate roughly 6, 000 visitors and the fest has 60 sponsors. Sixteen features were selected out of about 315 submissions for the dramatic competition.
“Every year, we have a pretty deep post-mortem with all the key staff. Last year, I could see what was happening. The overpowering influence of the commercial side made it seem that maybe what we needed to do this year was to push even further in the direction of the experimental and avant-garde. We have to counter even further the commercial forces that are working on the festival,” Redford said.
“We’re here to help people discover things. Of all the things that are important to me, it’s pressing home new work and new visions that’s most important,” he said.
Along that line, Redford acknowledged reports of a so-called Sundance cable channel that would carry independent work, but deflected the subject, saying, “I don’t think it would be appropriate to go into the details because we’re right in the middle of it.”
Even though most fest entries don’t go on to illustrious commercial careers, Redford feels “audiences are getting more and more interested in independent films. Documentaries are becoming more and more dramatic and sophisticated. I feel strongly about documentaries, now more than ever, and I’m sure there’ll be even more distribution opportunities for them in the future.
“The short subject is also an area I think is very important, because it illustrates the full scope of film, and because of the new open markets, it’s likely to return.”
Citing the importance he attaches to the Native American program at this year’s festival, Redford said, “It’s just now that we’re beginning to see the first generation of Native American filmmakers. That has not been an easy road, because the Native American filmmakers have been slow to emerge, but I’m sure we’ll begin to see them now.”
Similarly, the fest is continuing to spotlight Latin American cinema, something that was launched six years ago when Redford invited Gabriel Garcia Marquez and six Cuban filmmakers to Sundance. “We’re so close now we’re literally becoming one, so we’d better understand what’s going on there,” Redford said.
Professionally, Redford’s career has regained momentum during the past year and a half. His third directorial outing, “A River Runs Through It,” was a critical and commercial success, and “Indecent Proposal” gave him a B.O. smash as an actor.
His next release as a director, the 1950s-set “Quiz Show,” will be out in September, and he is planning on acting in one film in addition to the upcoming “The President Elopes” for director Rob Reiner before returning behind the camera for two Native American projects, “The Thief of Time” and “The Education of Little Tree.”
“I made a conscious choice to go back to work,” Redford said. “Sundance began commanding more and more of my time — it was like a magnet. I went through a tough time. Sundance wasn’t quite there yet, and it was draining on my work time.”
Now, he feels that the fest must be continually evaluated to make sure the proper balance is being maintained, and he remains acutely aware of certain questions that have arisen pertaining to the fest’s makeup and nature.
Responding to charges that the festival has become too international in nature, thereby excluding more domestic titles in favor of foreign pix that pop up in other fests, Redford replied, “We feel our own filmmakers can benefit from exposure to foreign filmmakers, particularly political filmmakers. There’s a lot to learn from Latin American filmmakers, for instance, who have no resources, in terms of grace, style and content. There’s never been a marketplace for international independent films, so we increased it initially for those reasons.”
Some observers have proposed that some sort of indie market be established to showcase the many films that don’t make it into the Sundance program.
“If we were going to accommodate all the entries, we’d have to move somewhere else. We’d also lose a little of our focus if weshowed anything that was sent in. You have to remember that we don’t decide on a film’s commerciality, but it does relate to the issue of judgment. I’ve always had mixed feelings about competition, but the festival has really helped some of those films that have won prizes.
“What might be an interesting experiment would be to take the films that either came in late or we didn’t select, and say we’re going to have a second festival for these films, and see what people think,” he said.
“Still, with the success of the festival, there’s increasingly more and more disgruntled people, and the problem is going to get even worse, (with) people who have been to the festival before or feel they have relationships with us, and I don’t know what you do with it.”
Redford relishes the continuity represented here this year with such guests as the Coen Brothers, whose “Blood Simple” debuted at Sundance and who are back this year with “The Hudsucker Proxy”; Gena Rowlands, whose career in indie films , particularly those of her late husband John Cassavetes, was honored over the weekend at the Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision, and Arthur Penn, this year’s career tribute recipient, who directed Redford in one of the latter’s first starring roles in “The Chase,” curiously missing from the screening lineup.