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by Eric Kohn
January 17, 2013 7:06 PM
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Sundance 2013: Robert Redford Says There Are Too Many Film Festivals

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."

Sundance remains relevant because it's Sundance.
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."

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14 Comments

  • yvette armstrong | March 19, 2013 1:04 AMReply

    I have a sundance film I am looking for help I wish you would contact me it is a great idea and will get a lot of people thinking I would really hope to hear from you my name is yvette Armstrong @ 206 551 6003 in Seattle. I have a children's book published thru author house I am not a nut just need a leg up thank you

  • Ekoli Hagenbuchle | February 11, 2013 10:08 PMReply

    I love Locarno but please the city is in Switzerland and not Italy.
    That's not a lovely mistake for Swiss citizen.

  • Brian Newman | January 19, 2013 11:25 AMReply

    While he has specifics wrong and leaves off facts like how long San Fran has been around, his underlying premise is correct. Nearly every festival was started because there weren't good ways to see these films in many cities in the US. We now have lots of access, and most of these fests just regurgitate what Sundance programs. We don't necessarily need fests for discovery and there are way too many now.

  • GlobalWatchM3 | January 19, 2013 11:17 AMReply

    There are only "too many film festivals," if you're already a very successful big time filmmaker.

  • Terry | January 19, 2013 10:21 AMReply

    He's getting very close to "You damn kids get off my lawn" territory in saying there are too many festivals. Bob, your indie film revolution was successful. This is what it looks like. The flipside of that is Sundance is no longer the only festival game for indie filmmakers.

  • seafar | January 18, 2013 12:52 AMReply

    Venice is oldest fest in world, founded in the 1930's. Locarno was founded in 1946. Berlin was founded well before Sundance....but, no matter, that basic premise is correct...or perhaps should be rephrased...there are too many festivals operating under the old premises of festivals.

  • Corvo | January 18, 2013 11:20 AM

    Right. And Locarno is in Switzerland, not in Italy.

  • jean vigo | January 17, 2013 11:51 PMReply

    Lynn Shelton is premiering her 5th (that's 5) feature. How does the term "emerging" qualify?

    Her 1st won the Grand Jury Prize at Slamdance in 2006.

  • remc | January 17, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    Great story. ... The guy who started the nontraditional festivals...

  • Sarah | January 17, 2013 7:52 PMReply

    Locarno is in Switzerland, just saying...

  • Jackie | June 11, 2013 5:37 AM

    No need to add "just saying" in this context..

  • Corvo | January 18, 2013 11:21 AM

    And it is NOT the oldest film festival in the world.

  • Quackhead | January 17, 2013 9:35 PM

    Redford has a Swiss cross on his arm too! I totally didn't Locarno was the oldest film festival in the world that's pretty cool.

  • Sarah | January 17, 2013 7:54 PM

    But you said that, sorry