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Why Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper Is Bullish on the State of Indie Films

Since “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” put it on the map nearly three decades ago, the Sundance Film Festival has been synonymous with indie film.

For much of that time, John Cooper has been a key member of the team organizing the Park City, Utah gathering, rising up the ranks to be named the festival’s director in 2009. He’s seen the business around art house film change, as well. The DVD industry has collapsed depriving companies of a major source of revenue, and major studios have shuttered their indie labels and become less interested in backing edgy, commercially risky projects.

But Cooper insists he’s optimistic about the quality of the films being shown at this year’s festival and across the indie spectrum. He notes that there remains a healthy amount of cross-pollination — studios continue to seek out Sundance artists such as Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”) and Ryan Coogler (“Creed”) and entrust them with their major franchises.

And he argues that the rise of streaming services aren’t just creating a new platform for people to show their work. It’s encouraging aspiring artists to become more knowledgeable about the craft of filmmaking by enabling them to easily access canonical works by top directors.

On the eve of the 32nd edition of the Sundance Film Festival, Cooper spoke with Variety about maintaining Sundance’s indie spirit, what the organization is doing to support diversity, and the big themes that filmmakers will be tackling in this year’s competition.

Sundance has pushed to include filmmakers of different races and genders in its program. Why has that been important?

Is it something we’re pushing? I don’t know. A lot of that comes organically. It’s natural that when you’re looking for interesting stories, fresh stories, original stories, it makes sense to look for diverse filmmakers with diverse backgrounds. Sundance is always about discovery and about discovery of new talent. It’s something that we’ve always been about and that feels good now that the conversation is building around this issue.

Do studios primarily come to Sundance to scout new talent or to buy films?

It goes back and forth with what’s more important — the talent or the finished product. It’s been almost 50/50 the last couple of years. They are absolutely here though to find the next generation of directors. The next generation of actors. That’s what our legacy is and it’s still our strength when you’re looking at the big lineup of festivals around the world.

I just saw Ryan Coogler two days ago at the Golden Globes, and I was just so proud of him and what he did with “Creed.” He came to Sundance with “Fruitvale Station” and that’s where he was discovered and now he got to have his voice in a bigger movie. He infused that movie with a new energy that made it fresh.

So much of the coverage of Sundance focuses on the films that sell and the price they command. Does that bother you that the success of the festival is determined by the heat of the market?

Bother is a big word. I don’t think I’m bothered. I just have to stick to my own goals and my own definition of success. My judgment of success is getting films that play well and the success after that is for everybody else to figure out. We think a lot about the experience of the ten days of the festival. Since I’ve taken over as director we have a lot of things we do for filmmakers to make the experience better — connecting them to industry figures, connecting them to each other. As the festival grew, that stuff doesn’t always happen organically. You have to build some moments for that to happen.

Filmmakers are naturally shy. I do a lot of talking to them about how a festival can be more about building a long term career than that film they are showing at that festival. I’ve been doing it so long, I see so many relationships that happen between filmmakers. We are building a community and the stronger the community, the stronger the films are.

As Sundance has grown, so have the number of companies that flock to Park City to promote their wares. How do you keep the indie spirit alive?

You always have to fight for it because as soon as it’s gone then the whole thing is gone. Sometimes you have to make hard decisions too. There are things that would be really flashy and are fun, but aren’t right. There are films that are okay films that we have to say no to because they aren’t right for our program.

There’s a balance between sponsors contributing to help indie film with those not contributing to anything but to add to their own bottom line. You try to get them on your side, but it doesn’t always work. What I do is to concentrate on the magic that’s in the theater. And we don’t allow much of that into the theaters. You keep those moments pure and magical and almost spiritual, sometimes. That’s what I concentrate on. That I think keeps the spirit alive.

Are you optimistic about the state of independent film?

We’re getting higher quality films than ever before. We’re really at a state of evolution in independent film. I see such an increased depth of story in these films — they’re original and powerful. I see a lot of attention to craft from filmmakers. An understanding of the camera and the angles and the images, and also when you talk about craft, writing. I think some of the best writing is in the dialogue and situations that are set up. That’s what I’ve seen get so much better.

There’s a bar that gets set when a filmmaker will see something like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” I think filmmakers go “wow, that’s the bar, that’s what I’m going for.” With technology you can see all these films. When I grew up there wasn’t video. It was all luck of the draw what was playing within ten miles of your house. Now you can actually create your own curriculum and design your own course of study.

What themes do you see cropping up among this year’s crop of films?

There are a few threads — examinations of race, of gender inequality. Gun violence in America is a big subject and we have films that tackle that. We try to connect stories with a push for change.

I’m always so impressed by our filmmakers and how much they know and how passionate they are. They’re mostly young directors, but they really have a point of view, and I’m glad they chose independent film as a way to express it.

Is it harder for people to build a career on the success of a Sundance debut than it was when you started?

Things have certainly changed, but that’s not necessarily bad. There was a time, like 15 or 20 years ago, when a lot of people wanted a [studio] deal. Then they’d get one and go stagnant. They were producing work that didn’t get made because naturally it wasn’t as commercial as the stuff that the people that picked them up were looking for. It’s kind of like you hire the race horse and then don’t let it run.

Issues around sustainability are real, but look at our returning filmmakers — Ira Sachs and Todd Solondz and Kelly Reichardt. These are all filmmakers who have found ways to live primarily in an independent world. They’re very much staying true to their own vision and their own spirit.

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