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Sundance at 25: Celebrating the Institute and Examining its Future

Indiewire By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire November 7, 2006 at 9:0AM

While Paul Newman, 81, carried around a bucket full of beers, collecting tips amounting to $450, other actors, from Parker Posey to Uma Thurman to Stanley Tucci, served wine to attendees. It was their way of saying thanks to the Sundance Institute, which celebrated its 25th anniversary at a fundraiser Monday night. At the gala benefit at New York's Metropolitan Pavilion, with tables costing upwards of $25,000 a pop, Sundance co-founder Robert Redford suggested modestly that he had no idea what Sundance would become 25 years ago. "I didn't know where it was headed," he said. "Now I'm interested in the future and more opportunities," he continued. "Having said that, the purpose of Sundance will always remain the same: creating a safe environment for filmmakers."
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While Paul Newman, 81, carried around a bucket full of beers, collecting tips amounting to $450, other actors, from Parker Posey to Uma Thurman to Stanley Tucci, served wine to attendees. It was their way of saying thanks to the Sundance Institute, which celebrated its 25th anniversary at a fundraiser Monday night. At the gala benefit at New York's Metropolitan Pavilion, with tables costing upwards of $25,000 a pop, Sundance co-founder Robert Redford suggested modestly that he had no idea what Sundance would become 25 years ago. "I didn't know where it was headed," he said. "Now I'm interested in the future and more opportunities," he continued. "Having said that, the purpose of Sundance will always remain the same: creating a safe environment for filmmakers."

Scores of celebrities, artists and executives were on hand for the celebration, which kicked off with a musical number by evening host and "Hairspray" star Jackie Hoffman, and featured appearances from "Control Room" director Jehane Noujaim, writer-director Moises Kaufman, actors Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel, composers Richard Horowitz and Susan Deyhim, and "Me and You and Everyone We Know's" Miranda July, who delivered a touching, funny and surreal monologue about stopping time before the moment of her emotional break-up with her boyfriend "Donny."

The entertainment concluded with a reel of Sundance Film Festival highlights, ranging from "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and "Half Nelson," to "Pi" and "Maria Full of Grace."

Sundance Institute Executive Director Kenneth Brecher and Feature Film Program Director Michelle Satter. Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage.com, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Beyond The Festival

But Sundance is more than just a film festival. While Sundance Institute executive director Ken Brecher acknowledged in a pre-gala interview that the Institute workshops get less press than the film fest, it's only because they spend all of their "time and energy and limited funding in supporting artists," he said, "not tooting our own horn."

In addition to the festival held in January, there's the Feature Film Program, and its screenwriting, directing and composer workshops, which have supported nearly 200 films since the Institute's inception, ranging from Gregory Nava's "El Norte" to Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry" to Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," which was showcased at the Monday celebration with video footage from an acting workshop between Tarantino and Buscemi.

The 6-year-old Documentary Film Program and its 5-year-old financing fund has also cultivated the likes of "Control Room" and "Born into Brothels" and helped exhibit such work through partnering with museums and other institutions. There's also the Institute's long-running Theatre Program, which was an outgrowth of the Utah Playwriting Conference, and a five-year-old Theatre Lab at White Oak in Florida for entire theater companies, among other year-round events such as screenplay readings, the Producers Conference, and a program devoted to emerging film composers.

"In brief, there's nothing remotely close [to Sundance] in terms of being a pump for new talent," John Pierson, who was on the Sundance Film Festival selection committee from 1988 - 1990, told indieWIRE recently. "And anybody, even the toughest critic, will find enough work they love to forgive the rest."

The Changing Face of Indie Film

But the cultural and entertainment landscape that exists today is very different from when the Institute began in 1981. There are changing economic realities, in terms of running the organization, but also in the highly competitive theatrical marketplace that filmmakers face when they leave the hallowed mountains of Robert Redford's creative haven.

In Peter Biskind's often critical book about Sundance's rise to power Down and Dirty Pictures, Sundance's first Executive Director Sterling Van Wagenen said that he began to see the organization's once indie-dominated leadership eventually get weeded out. "My last Sundance board meeting was held in a conference room at CAA Beverly Hills," he told Biskind. "Joe Roth was sitting on one side of me and Mike Ovitz on the other, and I looked around, and there were no independent filmmakers in the room at all."

Today's Sundance board is an eclectic mix, reflecting the diverse needs of the organization and its various constituents. Members include, among others, fashion tycoon Kenneth Cole, producers Jake Eberts ("Chicken Run") and Steve Tisch ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), actresses Sally Field and Glenn Close, philanthropist George Gund, business people such as Mellody Hobson (Ariel Capital Management, LLC) and Alex Lidow (CEO, International Rectifier Corporation), as well as, yes, even independent filmmakers Moisés Kaufman, Joshua Marston, and Jessica Yu.

"The board is very supportive and generous," said Brecher, who notes that despite a turn for the worse in funding for arts nonprofits, Sundance's foundational supporters -- the Open Society Institute, Ford Foundation, Doris Duke, Annenberg, etc. -- have "rallied behind the fact that we have operated without a deficit for over a decade and that almost everything we raise goes directly to the filmmaker.

"We learned in the theater program and the film program that a number of small grants to an individual artist at a key moment will do more than anything else," Brecher added.

Filmmaker Miranda July at the Sundance Institute 25th anniversary celebration. Photo by Mark Von Holden/WireImage.com, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

Nurturing New Projects

Michelle Satter, a founding member of the Institute who created the Feature Film Program, which she still runs today, contends the initiative "has evolved to address the needs of filmmakers, and also, where we can have an impact on the marketplace, as well."

The Feature Film labs, for example, have transformed from a one-month event with one full-time employee to a year-round operation with five full-time staffers that offers continual creative and strategic advice. "On any given day," she said, "we're working with ten filmmakers and very much in touch with supporting our alumni."

While the labs initially focused on development, Satter said the programs have also taken a more active approach in helping filmmakers produce their projects and penetrate the market, which she acknowledges is "tough" for small films these days. "There are too many films in the marketplace every weekend, so we're looking holistically at each of the projects that we support," which she numbers from 20 - 25 per year, with budgets mostly under a million dollars.

Debra Granik, director of "Down to the Bone" and a 1999 Feature Film lab alumnus, told indieWIRE that the Institute reviewed various cuts of her film, gave very "specific and deeply thought" suggestions and strategic advice, including comments about running times and other commercial considerations, as well as tried to push the project to production companies and development executives. "The lab can only do what they can do with films that the American marketplace and its regulators and investors deem non-commercial," said Granik. "But they do try to advocate and pull all the strings they can."

Satter acknowledged Sundance "doesn't have the answers yet" to the challenges and changing ways of distribution. But she said they continue to look for ways to expand and build the audience for truly independent film. And she said with the help of rough-cut screenings, an emphasis on the "last stage" of filmmaking, and a "focus on the most fully realized film all the way through post-production, I think that can make a difference."

Now in its third year, recent funding from the Annenberg Foundation has also allowed pre-production grants, essentially living stipends, for filmmakers who are in need.

Sundance Going Global

But the biggest shift in Sundance's ethos over recent years is a new global way of thinking. While Sundance has always been synonymous with American artists, the organization is looking more and more at filmmakers and artists outside of the country.

Tomorrow (Wednesday), Robert Redford will be on hand at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York to announce a new global filmmaking pilot project of the Sundance Film Festival in conjunction with the GSM Association, the cell-phone industry trade group. And the Sundance Festival continues to push hard for recognition of its fledgling World Cinema Competition sections.

While there remains skepticism about the Sundance festival's ability to be a viable international market for distinct world sales of its films, there is little doubt that Sundance Institute is committed to developing talents from abroad.

"We want American filmmakers to be world filmmakers and to feel like they're part of a bigger idea," said Brecher, "and for filmmakers from all over the world to feel they're in a community that is not just the place where they come from." Brecher noted Sundance has made a concerned attempt to turn to artists from the Middle East and Asia. "We've been very fortunate to meet with Middle Eastern filmmakers; we're in touch with people making films under the most difficult circumstances," he said.

"It's a different world than it was even five years ago," said Satter. "You have to look outside Sundance; there is a need to provide windows on other parts of the world." In addition to a possible political agenda, Satter explained, "on a pure aesthetic level, the American filmmakers have much to learn from international filmmakers, so there is also a creative agenda."

"We live in an interconnected world," continued Satter. "And we really see that as important."