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John Cooper: “We are looking for creativity born of limitations”

John Cooper: "We are looking for creativity born of limitations"

The move to create a new section for low and no budget films at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival came from an internal frustration that the event excluded worthy films in recent years. “I was bothered by that,” new festival Director John Cooper told indieWIRE today, saying that had the section existed last year, specific rejected films would have had a place at Sundance.

“It hurts a little when you are not supporting some real vitality within our community,” Cooper added, saying that he saw good films slipping through the cracks at Sundance and heading to other festivals.

But, Cooper added that he appreciates other fests — specifically naming SXSW and CineVegas — that felt that Sundance should do more and do it immediately. So, when he took the helm at the festival earlier this year, he brought the idea to his fellow programmers and said they breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“It seemed vital, that the time is now, it cannot wait,” Cooper said, reiterating that the festival has a responbility to, “follow the way that artists are actually working.”

The Sundance Film Festival has always been a place for the discovery of new talent and low budget films, but over the past fifteen years as the definition of American independent film has broadened to included bigger budget, star-driven movies made alongside the studio system, the fest has cast a wider net. Over the years, as the festival has become a larger media and celebrity event, organizers have weathered criticism and other festivals have become havens for the sorts of films that would have been at the center of the festival more than ten years ago.

“I really do hope that this is very encouraging to people that Sundance is looking at the whole range of independent film and that we are going to support it all,” he continued.

Don’t expect to see the new section, dubbed ‘NEXT’ to be made up entirely of Mumblecore or American neo-realism films, Cooper cautioned. He said that he and his programming colleagues will be looking to find some films that have a distinctive point of view and a strong filmmaking technique. In particular, he cited Corey McAbee’s low budget, but exceptionally distinctive “American Astronut,” a musical space Western from the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.

“We are looking for creativity born of limitations,” John Cooper said today.

Sundance’s curious symbol being used to refer to the new section internally — <=> — is an homage to Miranda July’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” Cooper said. And a press release today noted that the symbol can be literally translated as, “Less than equals greater than.”

Reflecting on that idea of making more from less, Cooper wondered, “How do you make a more than life from less than resources.”

The Sundance Film Festival won’t be expanding the total number of films it programs to accomodate the change, rather the new section will be carved out of the existing program, probably resulting in a smaller Spectrum section.

The addition of this new sidebar for films from filmmakers with big ideas but limited resources also comes at a time when fewer and fewer independent films are finding traditional theatrical distribution. Where indie films from young filmmakers would go to Sundance and some would leave with a distribution deal in the old days, such a scenario seems quite unlikely today, which is also forcing filmmakers and festivals to re-think their expectations.

“There’s going to be a redefinition of what success is for these films,”” Cooper explained, near the end of the conversation today. “It’s not just going to be that bought or sold malestrom that we live in.” He explained that with new platforms for distribution emerging, the festival must do more to showcase work by filmmakers who will ultimately find new ways to bring those movies to audiences.

“A big part of this is to help feed that – and support that – and to support new ways for filmmakers to support themselves,” he continued, “[It’s] going to take time and new paths have to be proven and forged, but there’s going to be a new definition of ‘success.'”

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