40 years later, the mission of the Sundance Film Festival remains the same

Jan 17, 2024, 5:54 PM | Updated: Jan 18, 2024, 5:01 pm

PARK CITY — “Our mission has remained the same since the very beginning, and that is creating a platform for artists, independent artists, to show their work.”

That has been Robert Redford’s constant statement as the 2024 Sundance Film Festival prepares to open Thursday. More than 86,000 participants attended the event last year with more than double that online. And this year, organizers are celebrating the 40th anniversary.

A film festival began in Salt Lake City in the late 1970s. In those days, a small crowd gathered for a ribbon cutting at Trolley Square. John Earl was one of the founders.

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“It’s the single most productive public relations effort that the state has with the film industry,” Earl said during an interview in 1980.

Then it was the Utah/US Film Festival. In 1981, it was the US Film and Video Festival and then eventually the Sundance Film Festival.

Theater goers waiting in line for the next film

Theatergoers waiting in line for the next film. (KSL TV)

Back then, Redford was an advisor. He would attend and offer seminars and lectures and introduce films. He agreed to take over the financially struggling festival in the early 1980s. A decade later, he remembered the painful beginning.

“The first year, we had an attendance of 400 people, and all signs indicated that this was probably going to be one of the great tank jobs of all time,” he said.

Redford enjoyed success in the film industry. However, that didn’t guarantee anything for the festival. In an interview, Redford admitted, “I’d be standing out on the street just trying to get people to come into the theatre…”

In those days, few people shared his vision, but he believed the film festival could work in Utah.

“I honestly believe that Utah can benefit from more sophistication having to do with the arts,” Redford said in 1988.

Robert Redford in 1989.

Robert Redford speaking at a panel in 1988. (KSL TV)

Before his involvement with the festival, Redford created the Sundance Institute. He brought in professional actors such as Paul Newman and Karl Malden, along with directors of the day, together with young filmmakers in workshops at the Sundance Resort.

By the 1990s, Sundance films were attracting Hollywood stars, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, who led the cast of “Sliding Doors.”

She explained that attraction to the script, by saying: “… and its more of a philosophical and moral film … we made it for not a lot of money.”

Even Britain’s best came to premiere a film at Sundance.

“It’s a beacon really, not just for America but in terms of the world as a truly independent festival for pictures that are almost always the product of great passion,” actor and director Kenneth Branagh said.

Kenneth Branagh (right) speaking with other filmmakers and to KSL TV.

Kenneth Branagh (right) speaking with other filmmakers and to KSL TV. (KSL TV)

Over the decades, KSL has been there for the 10 days to capture the stories of documentary or feature filmmakers. In 2005, Bridget Bedard described the feelings of these independent filmmakers.

“Getting in makes you feel like it was all worth it, all the risk, all the financial burden, everything, you know. It’s a really good feeling,” she said.

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Over the decades, the festival added more venues in Park City and in Salt Lake City. Joan Rivers joked when her documentary was being screened in a synagogue.

“This is the premiere and I think it’s hilarious, we’re in a Jewish Temple ,” River said. “Six of my relatives are downstairs praying.”

In 2013, NBA star Jeremy Lin attended to talk about “Linsanity.”

“I think there’s a lot of different angels this film will be able to impact people,” he said.

The festival became the place to be and be seen

As paparazzi and swag invaded Park City, Redford tried to remind everyone about the real purpose.

“This is about the filmmakers, this is about their work and us showing their work to you,” he said in 2012.

Redford speaking about the festival being for the filmmakers in a panel in 2012.

Redford speaking about the festival being for the filmmakers in a panel in 2012. (KSL TV)

The festival has also been the launching point to many film careers, including directors like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, James Wan, Paul Thomas Anderson, Catherine Hardwicke, Wes Anderson, Neil LaBute (who studied theater at BYU), Paul Greengrass, Marc Webb, Darren Aronofsky, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith, Colin Trevorrow, Richard Linklater, Damien Chazelle, Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay and Rian Johnson, among others.

It has also produced Academy Award winners, such as “CODA,” awarded best picture for 2021.

Redford brought in talented leaders who helped the festival succeed.

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Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute.

“It really is inspiring to be among so many talented people as they bring their movies to the world for the first time,” Putnam said.

And John Cooper, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival who stepped aside in 2020. “This is the 10 days that things can happen here that can’t happen anywhere else,” Cooper said.

Now Eugene Hernandez is at the helm of the festival in his first full year as director, only the fifth person in that position since the festival started.

“Sundance is a festival for Utah that brings the world together every year and Utahns have a front-row seat,” Hernandez said to KSL TV this week.

Currently, it’s still Redford’s vision. In 2009, KSL TV said to him that people, the world over, know what independent film is because of him.

“I had a real passion for what I thought could be done at a certain time that would create something new and possible,” Redford said. “But it was only a hope, there was nothing else to go on, so, those are scary times but you go through them because you believe in them.”

Redford speaking to KSL TV about the film festival's vision in 2009.

Redford speaking to KSL TV about the film festival’s vision in 2009. (KSL TV)

And 40 years later — it begins again. The Sundance Film Festival will run through Jan. 18 — 28.

In 2023, the economic benefits to Utah were more than $118 million.

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40 years later, the mission of the Sundance Film Festival remains the same