As is tradition, the 2016 Sundance Film Festival kicked off this afternoon with the annual Day One Press Conference. Sundance Institute Founder and President Robert Redford joined Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam and Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper for a lively discussion about this year’s lineup and the evolution of Sundance over the decades, moderated by Sean P. Means, Movie Critic and Columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune.
“The palette for indie storytellers is widening,” said Putnam in what could more or less be the thesis for this year’s festival. Featuring narrative films, shorts, documentaries and virtual reality programs, the 2016 Sundance Film Festival is embracing the changing technologies and formats to give rise to a new class of discoveries. The festival runs through January 30.
Like always, Redford was in top shape during the conversation, which took place at Park City’s own Egyptian Theatre. Addressing hot topics like the future of film, VR and diversity, Redford remained intelligent and thought-provoking, rattling off no shortage of reflective soundbites.
Below are the best things Redford said at the 2016 Sundance Day One Press Conference.
He’s most excited for the audience’s reaction.
“I think I speak for all of us here when I say [what we’re most looking forward to] are the audience responses, what the takeaway will be for this festival. When you come into this, you don’t know how it will go and you wait to see what the audience will take away from it at the end, aside from the point of it all, which is to create an opportunity for new voices to speak…The increase in applications [since we first started] has gone to 12,000 and that’s a monster to deal with. What’s your criteria going to look like for the few that will come in? That’s a lot of pressure for the people putting it together. People aren’t aware of the pressures.”
Sundance has always been used as a spotlight for the underdogs.
The theme Redford kept coming back to was how the festival is a spotlight for the types of filmmakers that are often pushed aside in Hollywood, be it women, minorities and even documentarians.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of documentaries…Those documentaries that I saw early on put you there, and that was exciting, you were there, you didn’t know what would happen next,” he said. “Years later, when we started Sundance, I felt maybe if we could create a platform to elevate documentaries to see they are much closer to narrative films, then it’d be a good thing if we could do it, to use the festivals as platform to say, ‘We think docs are important.’ It was very much our intention from the beginning to take documentaries and elevate them.”
He continued, “[When] there weren’t enough ethnic filmmaking to be shown, we had [Robert] Townsend come in, and we had women filmmakers who weren’t getting in [to the mainstream] like Lisa Choldenko, Kelly Reichardt. We picked out areas that weren’t getting enough attention or support and spotlighted these areas. Last year, we were talking about, ‘What do we want to look forward to this year?’ and it was women and young people. We do try to find areas that aren’t getting much support…We’ve tried to do that from the beginning.”
He believes diversity is rooted in the very idea of indie filmmaking.
When asked about the current diversity controversy and how Sundance has embraced diversity, Redford was very clear in declaring, “Diversity comes out of the word independence, that’s the principle word we’ve operated from. It’s an automatic thing if you’re independently minded and if you’re going to do things different from the common form.”
“That’s something we’re proud of, how we show diviertsty in the festival,” he said. “We think it’s important because it’s tied to the fundamental word of ‘independent.’ Diversity speaks for itself in terms of the topics. When we have these issues that come up, we don’t bring that up. We just put a spotlight on the artists who bring them up. The artists are making films about what’s on the public mind and the public conversation. They come up with those points of views, we just put a spotlight on them.”
He’s not a fan of virtual reality yet and still loves the theater experience.
“I remember as a kid we had 3D and it just got in the way,” he said when asked about new technology. “I’m looking forward to the time when we can take VR to a new place that doesn’t require assistance with stuff. I guess I’m always old fashioned enough to believe it’s always important for people to go into a movie house in the dark, collectively with each other, and see a movie on the big screen. I’ll aways think that’s important. The technology may be driving us to smaller and smaller things, but you can’t replace the value of gathering in community space in the dark on a big screen and being transported if you are.”
He’s not into the Oscars, only the work.
When asked to speak about the diversity crisis plaguing this year’s oscars in particular, Redford rebutted, “I’m not into Oscars. I’m not into that.”
He humorously clarified: “I can hear the headlines now: ‘[Redford] Hates Oscars. That’s for Donald Trump to say! What I mean is that I’m not focused on that. I’m in it for the work, whatever reward comes from that I don’t think of. There’s nothing more important or exciting than the work when you’re doing it, whatever comes from it is fine but it doesn’t occupy my thinking.”
Sundance was born to be weird.
“I came here because the place I came from — Los Angeles — was falling into the sea of development. It was no longer the city I loved as a kid, so I moved further inland,” he said about coming to Sundance. “I came to Utah and that was fine, but then Utah was doing what everyone is doing, developing like crazy. So why not bring a festival here? Let’s make it weird and different, bring it to Utah and do it in the middle of winter. Maybe people like to ski — that would be fun. We wanted to be weird and keep things off beat, it’s more interesting. That’s why I came here. I thought it was different. It wasn’t the place you’d expect a festival to come.”
Film school isn’t needed if you just go out and experience the world.
When asked for advice to young filmmakers, Redford said, “I’m not sure film school is the answer as much as experience and getting out in the world and seeing what’s going on in the world from firsthand experience. Don’t go from school to school and make a movie, you’ll just be relying on what other filmmakers did. To me, what’s more important if you’re going to tell a story and own the story you’re selling, it’s to get out in the world, hit the road and have some real life experience that will feed your mind.”
He thinks indie film is not in a good place, just as it always has been.
“It’s always been tough for indie film…it’s tough for film in general cause there’s threats in distribution that take away from what used to be a simple equation. There’s streaming, online, all kinds of new distribution, all these other areas that didn’t exist way back, so as a result it kind of bleeds away from film. Film is not in a good place. Indie film is not in a good place, but it never has been. It’s always been tough, but it survives because it’s always had value. Money is at the core, changing times is at the core, and other threats that didn’t exist before. As it changes, what remains is that it’s always tough for film.”