Robert Redford has remained the most resilient symbol of the Sundance Film Festival since its inception. To some degree, the movies come second: Even the breakout hits, like last year's "Beasts of the Southern Wild," take on new identities once they move beyond the festival environment. While Sundance alone can never define the best work in contemporary cinema, Redford takes great pride in his continuing ability to expose it.
Like clockwork, the actor-director-activist speaks confidently with press on the first day of the festival about the lasting value of Sundance as it moves through each decade of changes to the art and commerce of filmmaking, and this year was no exception.
However, this time he made a curious admission: If he had the opportunity to create Sundance today, he might think twice.
"I think there are probably too many festivals," Redford told a roundtable of journalists in Park City this afternoon. The actor said his interest in Sundance grew out of a frustration about the platforms available to films that interested him early in his career. "I started getting anxious about the stories that I wanted to tell," he said. "I realized over time that I was straddling two worlds and more and more happen with the smaller films. I wanted to extend that."
Since then, the prospects of film festivals highlighting work either outside of the mainstream or adjacent to it has expanded to such a great degree that, when asked if he might want to launch Sundance in the current environment, the response was instant: "Probably not," he said, then echoed a sentiment expressed at last year's festival, when he made the bold assertion that Sundance was the only "truly independent" gathering of its kind.
Redford clarified that he would launch Sundance "if there was still a space to have an independent festival, because it's really independence that interests me." By contrast, he quickly ticked off the limited festival environment when Sundance began. "There was Cannes, there was Toronto, I think Telluride was just gearing up. There was the oldest festival in the world in Locarno, Italy. Lincoln Center hadn't gotten to where it is. And then Berlin hadn't come yet. So we had an exclusive space that was sharpened by the fact that we were the only independent festival in the world. So that felt good."
These days, however, "there's a festival in every neighborhood," he added. "I don't know about the overriding value except that we'll get the chance to see more films."
While his enthusiasm comes from a real place, Redford's notion of independence is a tenuous at best (and his timeline needs some cleaning up: The Berlin International Film Festival launched in 1961; Locarno is actually in Switzerland — but that's beside the point). Virtually every major festival, including the ones Redford listed, showcase movies made beyond the constraints of the studio system, and the European festival circuit certainly outdoes Sundance in its overview of the brightest filmmakers working outside of the United States.
Redford valiantly helps keep Sundance's visibility high, but the brand ramifications demand more precise definition each year, and neither the aging Sundance Kid nor his hardworking team can fully verbalize its function in the crowded marketplace of ideas that defines 21st century storytelling. "In the early years of Sundance, I didn't know how it was going to go," Redford said. "It's more than fulfilled its vision."
So, what's next? Even festival director and longtime programmer John Cooper, who headed the selection of the 114 features from a submission pool of 4,000, resists giving a firm answer on Sundance's continuing distinction. "We do good work," Cooper said when asked how he responses to shifts in the landscape of production and distribution that impact the types of movies that benefit from exposure at the festival. When that vague reply prompted this journalist to reply, "Oh, come on," Cooper clung to vagaries. "I actually don't think about it too much. You always just keep doing the work you do the best you can and the brand takes care of itself."
From an industry perspective, Cooper's assertion may do the trick: Sundance remains relevant because it's Sundance. The festival's Artist's Services program, launched this year and partly geared toward helping filmmakers launch their work on digital platforms, allows the strength of Sundance to blossom beyond the same geographical restrictions most festivals face and address emerging models.
The need for quality in programming offers a more elusive challenge. Each year, Sundance invites waves of hype generated by movies with stars or other commercial potential, sometimes to the detriment of smaller movies that by all rights should truly define its qualities. If one were to look beyond attention-hogging selections like the unpromising biopic "Lovelace" or other movies somewhat transparently chosen for factors that may have nothing to do with the "truly independent" notion Redford repeats each year, a far more diverse overview of aesthetic impulses await discovery in festival sections like the microbudget NEXT and New Frontier.
Even as competition movies from emerging voices like Lynn Shelton ("Touchy Feely") and David Lowery ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints") stand out in the competition, the real potential for Sundance to keep pushing its potential lies with the stranger-sounding titles, like New Frontier entries "Interior. Leather Bar" and "Halley," as well as the generally outré midnight section and typically first-rate documentary competitions. If there's enough to write home about in these sections, Sundance may still cling to the validity it has trumpeted for nearly 30 years. We'll have a better idea about that in 10 days' time, although nobody can doubt the festival's evident sincerity in tackling its mission.
"I found 115 films," Cooper said. "Why don't you try it?" He chuckled. "Maybe I'm naive and will be out of the job in 15 years. Quote me on that."