Kicking off the first Sundance Film Festival since actresses Rose McGowan and Louisette Geiss alleged that Harvey Weinstein respectively raped and sexually harassed them there in previous years, Sundance leadership firmly denied that they enabled the now-disgraced producer. “Sundance as an institution never contributed to that behavior,” said Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, partaking in the traditional, Day One press conference with the Institute’s president and founder, Robert Redford, and festival director John Cooper. “While of course these things sickened us and happened during our festival, they’re nothing we were aware of at the time.”
Setting aside Weinstein’s alleged personal wrongdoing, Redford did not sound like he’s mourning Weinstein’s professional presence at the festival, either: “When we have people that come to the festival like Harvey, they came to the festival with one thing in mind. They appeared to be very supportive of the festival — and I think they were — but it was for their own interests, because they were looking at our festival to find out what they could cherrypick for their own use. So he could take some of the films and probably get them cheaper here, and then go on and promote them as his own.”
Since Sundance merely provides a venue for exhibiting artists, not distribution, the Best Director Oscar winner (“Ordinary People”) said “there’s nothing we can do” when Hollywood honchos approach wield their power over its content. For his part, Cooper asserted that Weinstein “wasn’t even that big of a deal with us for the last couple of years.”
Per usual, the press conference took place at the Egyptian Theatre on Park City, Utah’s busiest of real estate, Main Street. During the first Saturday of last year’s festival — the day after President Trump’s inauguration — an estimated crowd of 8,000 including Connie Britton, Laura Dern, Chelsea Handler, Salma Hayek, John Legend, and Charlize Theron participated in the March On Main, in solidarity with concurrent Women’s March events across the globe. On its anniversary, Redford’s five-time co-star, Jane Fonda, and an attorney representing multiple Weinstein accusers, Gloria Allred, will be among the speakers at the Respect Rally (both women also star in documentaries screening at the festival).
Fittingly, the Sundance triumvirate addressed how the festival and its linked entities are supporting the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up initiative, both founded in recent months as outcries to rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the entertainment community. Sundance already updated its code of conduct and partnered with Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes’s office on a 24-hour hotline to report violations.
As for the widespread, post-Weinstein actions, Redford said, “It’s changing the order of things so that women are going to have a stronger voice, and they didn’t have it before. It was too much control by the male-dominance, but now I think it’s going to be more even-handed. And I think the role for women to be able to step forward and exercise their voices more and more I think is a really wonderful thing, and I think the role for men right now would be to listen, and to let women’s voices be heard, and think about it, and then maybe discuss it, and discuss it among themselves. It’s a time of change that I think can lead to a new conversation — at least I’m hopeful.”
Putnam concurred that she was excited and pleased by what she’s seeing, although true reform will be a long and challenging undertaking. “I do think it’s about more than a few individual men, I think it’s about the underlying systems of power,” said Putnam. “Looking at what are those structures, what are those assumptions that we make in terms of what we value, who gets financing, who gets distribution, who gets to tell the stories, and what stories we tell.”
Also discussed was their commitment to keep the festival in it’s birthplace of Park City. This year, the festival’s presence there grows with the addition of a new, permanent, 500-seat theater, The Ray, the result of renovating a former Sports Authority over three frenzied months.
The 34th annual Sundance Film Festival slate was culled from 13,468 submissions. In the next 10 days, it will boast 138 world premieres, and 38 percent of its offerings were directed by women. At least three films could have worldwide impact, in Cooper’s estimation: Kimberly Reed’s election-funding documentary, “Dark Money;” “The Devil We Know,” an exposé by Stephanie Soechtig on how DuPont poisoned a West Virginia water supply; and “A Night at the Garden,” a short by Marshall Curry about a New York City Nazi rally attended by 22,000 people in 1939, especially searing after the last presidential election emboldened white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In recent years, streaming services have bankrolled some of the festival’s biggest acquisitions, and Putnam said, “I don’t think we should be purists about how audiences want to experience the work…Some artists love for their work to be seen in a theater some people would rather their work be seen more widely digitally, and I think those are both good. It’s not an either/or.” However, she did concede that much of the excitement of Sundance involves the thrill of seeing new movies and shows — “real content that isn’t just disposable, mass-produced” — alongside a passionate crowd. “I think audiences as a whole can be part of the demand for more diversity in what we see in the cinemas, and it can’t just be up to the artists and the industry to diversify.”
Watch the full press conference below.