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The Sundance Film Festival has many charms, and that’s what brings film lovers of all tastes and locales to Park City each year. But for this film buff and journalist, the festival’s most seductive offering is Robert Redford’s annual press conference, which takes place the day before each year’s festival begins. Here he shares his plans and dreams for Sundance past and future with the world’s press corps. He is always joined by long-time festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, and usually a valued guest, this year John Hooper, who’s been introducing technology-based high-concept art pieces to Sundance at the “New Frontier”.

2009 is a particularly poignant year, since it’s being celebrated as Sundance’s 25th anniversary, a tremendous milestone for a scrappy group of pioneers who dreamed that independent filmmakers and documentarians could have a showcase and a market
for their work. Though proud of the festival’s achievements, Redford isn’t so sure about the assignation of 25!

“For the past 3 years or so we’ve been celebrating our 25th anniversary so…. (everyone laughs) …All I know is in ‘84 we took over. Whatever it is, it’s been a long time, whatever anniversary it is. When an anniversary comes, for me it’s not just about looking back to an individual moment, but to the time before and the time to come. I think we can see the consequences of taking the short term view, so for us it’s always been about the long term view. At first we didn’t know if we’d survive.”

“They [filmmakers] didn’t have a place to go, so that led to the idea of a festival,” Redford continued. “At that time, our festival needed to be discovered in the marketplace. Because of the lab at Sundance, which is year-round, the festival is independent. We were not meant to be commercial.  You don’t want your creativity to be restricted to the mainstream. You want to be able to be free. It’s like the bottom line.”

This idea, which Redford also mentioned the previous year, was made real with a festival-wide campaign- a kind of gentle uprising against the commercialism that Sundance has always attracted- and resented. The studio presence, the partying, the rowdiness- all distractions from Sundance’s true purpose. To carry that point forth, most of us were asked to wear buttons carrying the message “Focus on Film”. And…. most of us did.

This year, Redford announced, “We’re going to be focusing on diversity that’s out there. We want this to be a place for discovery. That was the main point. A chance for new artists and a place for discovery.  So looking back 25 years, the irony is that it’s become successful because it’s diverse.”

He continued, “We thought long term, we thought, how can we improve our basic mission, which is to help the filmmakers. We realized that the audiences were diverse themselves. They were coming here because we were offering something that they were being denied in the marketplace and that is a broader menu of choices. So suddenly a one-way opportunity became a two-way opportunity for artists and audiences. We could sell and promote more with a dialogue with the audience.”

“To not belabor this, of the things that I said have happened over the years, I’m always looking down the road, whether you’re going to survive. That process has never changed. The way we program the festival is the same it’s been since the year we started.”

“The world changes and we’re very acclimated to that. Globalization has shown its face. We make adjustments to the world around us. The commitment remains the same.”

Someone asked Redford about the wall between art and commerce. He replied, thoughtfully, “There shouldn’t be a wall but there has been. There still is to a degree. I may be overly optimistic, but one of the things we’re trying to prove is that Sundance is the place where the work happens. At that place, we bring audiences in to watch our process, so art and commerce can co-exist. If that will succeed, I don’t know.”

Gilmore adds, “I always wonder what people mean when they talk about commerce and what they mean when they talk about art. This is a festival that was considered absolutely non-commercial. That has changed. What Sundance has been about is expanding the sense of the possible. And expanding the sense of the possible means changing the nature of what people even view as commercial, so we walk lines but we haven’t changed our agenda. What’s frustrating is people telling us how wonderful a film is, but how they don’t think they can take it out into the marketplace.”

Redford adds, “We’re looking at a world that’s really screwed up, but there are a lot of opportunities that come along with that. I think the part that has our businesses in turmoil needs changing like everything else. It’s very hard for independent filmmakers to work with studios. How people are going to adjust to it is one thing, but distribution is key. The distribution is going to be online, on the internet. That itself is drastically changing the distribution system. So it’s no longer going to be the same formula. Distributor and exhibiter."

Gilmore picks up the thread, “It’s a complicated question. The distribution bottleneck is the most frustrating part of independent filmmaking. There’s so much quality work out there. Audiences have so many more chances to see film than they did 20 years ago, and there are many more films in the marketplace than there were 20 years ago. The systems have changed in terms of how films are coming out. I want to say the internet is going to be one of the solutions, but it’s not going to be the only solution. It’s a very complicated situation. “

“You said the process hasn’t changed but everything else has. So has the advise you gave to filmmakers 25 years ago changed,” asked a person in the audience.

“The advice I would give when asked is the same today as it was then. If you want to get into this business, you have to want it more than anything else in your life. It’s going to take things like love and hard work and diligence and tenacity and bravery and courage. To go through that, you have to want it more than anything. That hasn’t changed.”

“The rest of it, if you go beyond it, if you go into the specifics, for the filmmakers who come to Sundance, we don’t tell them what to do or how to do it. We ask them what they want. What’s their position? What’s their point of view in their film? And we help them realize that. So it would be the same with the students. What do you want? Let’s look at the realities of the business and the marketplace and find a way to get there.

When asked if the economic climate is affecting Sundance in any way, Redford answered in the way we hoped he would. “Obviously the economic climate is huge and how it’s going to affect the festival, I just can’t say. But in terms overall, art will find a way. I’m a believer. Sundance is, in its own way, trying to promote constantly the value of art in society and get more traction for it, specifically in the education system.”

“It will survive. It always has, and it always will. Certainly we’re in tough times. It’s affecting all areas of distribution and finance, but art will find a way.” / Issue 93 - September 6017
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