PARK CITY 2001: Defining Sundance: An Interview With Robert Redford
by Eugene Hernandez
(indieWIRE/01.26.01) — Talking about the frenzy of celebrities, parties, alternative festivals and media surrounding the annual Sundance Film Festival, founder Robert Redford first calls the scene “a circus,” but then stops short, admitting this is a bit too negative a characterization.
Currently in London shooting the new Tony Scott film, “The Spy Game,” Sundance Institute President Robert Redford seems genuinely disappointed to be missing out, but he remains adamant in telling festival attendees not to lose sight of the reason they are all gathered in Park City. Redford spoke with indieWIRE at length yesterday by phone, discussing the state of the festival and the Institute he founded two decades ago.
“It’s become harder and harder each year to maintain our course, because of the overpowering force — what I would call the more external factors — like celebrity, fashion, and the media’s obsessions with who is there and whether people are wearing black,” Redford offers.
Such external factors are not hard to miss. This year, more than any other in recent memory, the festival has become a magnet for not only filmmakers hoping to get a foot in the door, but seemingly unaffiliated partiers, corporate image-makers and various sundry hangers-on. It’s all a part of the circus atmosphere that has made Sundance a pop culture destination — not to mention a battleground of competing ‘dances.’
While indieWIRE would argue that the alternative Park City festivals such as Slamdance, Slamdunk, No Dance, Lapdance and others have given filmmakers a way to showcase themselves and their work, Redford has, in past public comments, cast himself as less than supportive of such efforts — a position he softens in our conversation. “I have no problem with it whatsoever,” he says. “Look, the more the merrier, because what is the point of this in the first place — we can’t possibly show all the films that come our way.”
In fact, there is a value to Sundance’s stardom, Redford admits, connecting the festival’s cachet to the impact it can have in a changing political climate. “There is a huge political undercurrent to Sundance, and let’s be honest about it,” Redford admits. “As we get more people like the current [pres.] administration we’ve got — which is going to give pap instead of real information or truth — where is the truth going to come from?”
Continuing, Redford offers, “I have to be realistic and somewhat grateful for the celebrity, because without it, no one would be paying much attention.”
For better or worse, the rise of Sundance is clearly connected with, and in many cases has fueled, a change in the definition of “independent” American films. The change came as specialty distributors — that would ultimately become divisions of the Hollywood studios — looked to the festival as a place to find and market releases. “Big studio divisions still do overpower [independent] film for the most part, because of the money and their strength in terms of promoting films,” Redford comments. “There is no way that independent films can really compete with that.”
This fact is nowhere more evident than at Sundance, which has been criticized for becoming first and foremost a marketplace for the film industry, where low budget indies battle beside star-driven Indiewood productions. “We still treat this like a festival,” Redford defends, supporting his team of organizers led by Geoff Gilmore and Nicole Guillemet. “We don’t treat it like a market — the fact that it became a market had to do with the outside interests coming in and turning it into a market which is not all bad as long as it doesn’t get so distorted that people forget or don’t pay attention to what is really going on there.”
However, Redford says, “We’re now looking at the next ten years, and how independent film is going to evolve, and the biggest — at least in my opinion — the biggest agent of change is going to be digital.”
“This is probably going to be the most revolutionary thing to hit our industry in years,” he offers. “There is going to be a whole big upside about people being able to make films that they couldn’t. [before] A whole lot of things are going to be possible.”
For Redford and the Institute, the future is not only digital, but it is also driven by the long planned Sundance Cinemas chain. “Our objective is to go into the communities around the country, to work with universities and the communities themselves,” Redford explains, “using independent film as the core.”
Such efforts have been hampered of late by economic factors. The filing for bankruptcy by Sundance’s exhibition partner, General Cinemas, has certainly slowed the Institute’s progress in building the chain, Redford acknowledges. However, “We are still going forward,” he promises. “I am very committed to that concept.”
As determined as Redford is to foster the creation and acceptance of diverse cinemas, ironically the actor/director/advocate admits, “I wasn’t prepared for the festival ever going past 10 years,” he says. “But the way that we kept it going is to be very much aware of what is going on in the marketplace, not only culturally, but technologically.”
“You have to keep reinventing yourself,” Redford concludes, “You have to keep fluid and moving and be aware of the future and what is going on.”