Sundance fest touts indie roots

Festival keeps hold of original values

Three decades after the birth of the Sundance Film Festival, fest organizers are embracing new technology this year while keeping hold of the “shoestring” philosophy and community values that kickstarted the event.

Founder Robert Redford spoke fondly of the fest’s roots to an intimate crowd in the Egyptian Theater on Park City’s Main Street, the same venue in which Sundance first unfolded.

“Thirty years ago, in 1980, I wanted to create a space and a place for independent artists, for new ideas and new voices to have a place to develop, and that happened about 40 miles from here in a place called Sundance,” Redford said.

Recollecting the struggles of cobbling together a “new idea” that had little support initially, Redford said the Foundation became the engine driver for the fest throughout its forthcoming years.

“We started out on a shoestring and, as I look back on it, I think I might have felt bad about that at the time,” Redford said. “I don’t think it was a bad thing that we started on a shoestring, as scary as it was, because I’ve learned that has become our core — keeping that idea in place.”

And while he was proud that the fest had created a sense of community — “that’s something I always missed in my life” — the goal going forward is to keep the old in place while blending in the new.

This is exec director Keri Putnam’s first year, which Redford dubbed a “fresh new start” although Putnam has been coming to the fest since 1992.

Putnam cited major advancements for the fest this year, including kicking off partnerships and “looking to connect with audiences in the digital world.”

“Our shorts this year are on YouTube, which I think is just the beginning of us looking at what we can do to explore that space,” Putnam said.

Helmer Kevin Macdonald’s “Life in a Day” partnered with the website to collect more than 5,000 hours of YouTube footage with which he pieced together the pic. “Life in a Day” bows at the fest Thursday.

Putnam expressed the growing global presence of the fest, with 30% of its artists international, and she noted the event’s collaboration with President Obama’s arts and humanities committee, the global film project Film Forward. She also tubthumped a partnership to promote Asian cinema in the U.S. with India’s Mahindra Group.

Fest director John Cooper also cited technological advances at the fest that were set to unspool: “Take note of our online and social-media presence … we’re going to be doing 15 live streams throughout the festival. So we’re also pushing this festival out using technology.”

But he highlighted some major challenges for the fest this year, including the loss of the Racquet Club, which contained the second-largest of the Sundance theaters. “I think we are going to feel that with the seats we lost here in Park City,” he said. Fest has reskedded screenings to the Redstone Theater outside town.

As the event gets under way, and with six of its 16 pics up for competition in the U.S. dramatic section coming from Sundance labs, this year’s fest looks to be as homegrown as ever.