John Cooper has been named Director of the Sundance Film Festival, effective immediately, the Sundance Institute announced Tuesday. He replaces Geoffrey Gilmore who left the post last month to join Tribeca Enterprises as its Chief Creative Officer. Since September 2002, Cooper has served as Director, Creative Development for the Sundance Institute and Director of Programming, Sundance Film Festival after previously serving as associate director of programming. But, he has been at Sundance for 20 years.
“I feel good, I’m optimistic. It’s a huge change for me, but it’s also not a huge change,” Cooper told indieWIRE by phone from Los Angeles on Tuesday evening. “We have a great programming staff [and] I’ve helped create something I’m inheriting, so that’s good. I’ve also been given a lot of support from Bob Redford, which has been really helpful…”
Cooper noted that the festival, which took place in January with Gilmore at the helm, managed to weather the economic downturn with a successful event both in terms of attendance and as a showcase of creativity. “The festival was good [this year]. Ticket sales didn’t drop and people liked the movies and Geoff left so happy…”
Moving forward, Cooper said he wants the festival to evolve, but not as a response to the economy, instead to encompass broader shifts taking place in the industry generally. “I don’t want to think about the economy as changing the festival, I’d like to think about how we change the festival anyway. We will look to independent filmmakers and see what kinds of films they are making and how they’re telling their stories because that is what our mission is…”
Internally, Cooper indicated he’d like to establish a clearer distinction between the event’s festival director vs. its programming director. “I’m going to be looking at staffing structures and see what’s best for us. What’s hard is to not look at what other festivals do in places like Europe because everyone is different. We’re a discovery festival, we’re not launching Academy Award campaigns. We have to do what’s good for [Sundance].”
Continuing, Cooper didn’t anticipate major staffing changes, though he said he will take a look at how the workload is allocated within the operation. The current programming team includes senior programmers Shari Frilot, Trevor Groth, and Caroline Libresco, as well as programmers John Nein and David Courier. “I think this is one of the best staffs we’ve ever had in any given year,” said Cooper who singled out additional praise for Sundance’s operations staff.
“We need to be responsible to artists and filmmakers foremost, and not just the ones we’ve worked with,” he added. “We need to pay attention to trends that are changing in the film world, industry and press. We also need to be responsible to artists whose work are now living on the web.”
Cooper joined the Sundance Institute in 1989 and has been recognized by the organization for playing a “pivotal role in both the evolution of Sundance Film Festival and the development of the Sundance Institute’s new initiatives.” In recent years, he has helped spearhead the development of New Frontier on Main, the festival’s section spotlighting the intersection of contemporary artists with technology and the moving image in addition to launching short film distribution programs through relationships with iTunes, Netflix and Xbox 360 platforms.
Last year, John Cooper was instrumental in engaging Blue State Digital, architects of President Obama’s groundbreaking online campaign, to connect with the Institute’s film and theater alumni, enhancing donor communication, and the recruitment of new Institute and festival supporters. In addition to programming the late Sundance Institute at BAM series, Cooper has spearheaded ‘The Sundance Institute Art House Project,’ a national initiative of 18 art houses from across the country designed to connect regional audiences to the Sundance’s films and filmmakers.
“When we established the Festival, it was always with two goals in mind: supporting new artists and inspiring new audiences,” commented Sundance president and founder Robert Redford in a statement. “Cooper has never lost sight of these goals. He brings to the position an infectious enthusiasm as well as a deep understanding of the Sundance brand and culture. Forward thinking, he is a natural choice of succession to lead the Festival into the 21st century.”
“The Trustees and I are very pleased that Cooper has agreed to serve as the festival’s new director,” added Ken Brecher, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute in a statement. “To have such an innovative leader who is very much in tune with the needs and interests of today’s filmmakers is invaluable.”