The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday night with multiple screenings, but the event took a backseat at the afternoon's Sundance Institute press conference overseen by founder Robert Redford, Sundance Institute head Keri Putnam and festival director John Cooper.
"The festival gets enough attention and we're grateful for that, but there are other areas [of this organization] that are also important to us," Redford said from the stage of the event's original home, the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street. Dressed in his Sundance standard-issue flannel and jeans, the actor/director recalled the organization's 30-year evolution that began in its various labs and grew to include the festival, the Sundance Channel and beyond. While the institute and festival have grown in stature -- and budget -- Redford said the event still operates from its low-frills roots.
"We started on a shoestring and, looking back, I felt bad about that for a bit of time," Redford said. "But now, I don't feel bad about that anymore. I keep thinking [now] that a shoestring as our core has always felt right and that's the reason why the festival has the look and feel it does."
Putnam, who joined institute last spring, touted the organization's worldwide initiatives including the Sundance Labs. Just yesterday, they announced a partnership with India's Mahindra Group to collaborate on a new annual screenwriters lab to be held in India in addition to a new annual award, the Sundance Institute|Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award, which will be presented at the Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Institute also entered an agreement with the Ford Foundation for a five-year, $50 million initiative to "to help find and support a new generation of filmmakers whose works address urgent social issues." The plan, dubbed JustFilms, will devote $10 million a year to "support and expand the community of filmmakers and mediamakers around the world focused on creating documentaries with passion and purpose."
"We want to promote the role of film, theater and all of the arts in our culture in connecting people from across perceived boundaries," said Putnam.
In his second year as the festival's director, Cooper said he felt less nervous this time around. However, he looked back on his inaugural outing as one that benefitted from independent film having a stellar year overall. He also expects this year's roster to make this edition one of the biggest.
That said, he added a cautionary note due to the loss of the Racquet Club, one of the event's prime spaces. "I think we will feel that," he said. "We're already sold out and we feel this is going to be one of our biggest years, so it may be a little crowded on the streets."
Cooper also said he feared a rise in what he called "ambush marketing," which saw a decline following the rise of gift houses and party spaces back in the late '90s and early 2000s. "At an event this size, it's to be expected," he said. "I just wish they could find a way to contribute to independent film or art in general."
An organization that Redford formerly condemned as a "parasite" has found new favor. When asked about the Slamdance Film Festival, he said, "The more the merrier. I don't have any problem with it at all. Considering the number of submissions we get and since there's so few films we can show given our space - 10,000 submissions to Sundance - [it's fine]. I remember early on they seemed to only show films that were rejected from here, but I don't feel like that anymoe and I wish them well."
Now in his 70s, Redford said he had no plans to retire "I have not talked about retiring," he said then joking, "I'm going to die. This has been a long haul and a rocky road at times and sometimes it didn't seem like we'd survive. But what I've been proud of is seeing people who have worked up from the ground level who are now running our labs. And I want to throw a nod to John Cooper. He worked up from the base and he's up at the top. He has great taste and knowledge..."
Then he added, "And he's only been out of prison for a month."