ENTERTAINMENT

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.

Redford speaking to KSL TV about the film festival's vision in 2009. (KSL TV) Redford speaking about the festival being for the filmmakers in a panel in 2012. (KSL TV) A banner saying "Park City Welcomes the United States Film Festival" (KSL TV) A film still from "Reservoir Dogs" by Quentin Tarantino, an official selection of the From the Collection program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival that first played at the festival in 1992. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) "Boyhood" from the Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy Sundance Institute) "Little MIss Sunshine" a Sundance Film Festival selection.  (Courtesy Sundance Institute) "Whiplash" a Sundance Film Festival feature. (Courtesy Sundance Institute) Jenna Murray appears in Winding Path by Alexandra Lazarowich and Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ed David. A still from Winding Path by Alexandra Lazarowich and Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ed David) Jenna Murray appears in Winding Path by Alexandra Lazarowich and Ross Kauffman, an official selection of the U.S. Shorts Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Ed David) A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Eva Sereny / Iconic Images. A still from Napoleon Dynamite by Jared Hess, an official selection of the 40th Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from Napoleon Dynamite by Jared Hess, an official selection of the 40th Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Pedro Pascal appears in Freaky Tales by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck,an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from Presence by Steven Soderbergh, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. A still from Super/Man: The Christopher Reeve Story by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute | Photo by Herb Ritts / AUGUST.) A still from Skywalkers: A Love Story by Jeff Zimbalist, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) A still from "Eternal You" by Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Konrad Waldmann) A still from "Skywalkers: A Love Story" by Jeff Zimbalist, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) Kristen Stewart and Steven Yeun appear in Love Me by Sam Zuchero and Andy Zuchero, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Justine Yeung) Phoebe-Rae Taylor appears in Out of My Mind by Amber Sealey, an official selection of the Family Matinee program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. (Noah Greenberg) A still from DEVO by Chris Smith, an official selection of the Premieres Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute) The nonprofit behind the Sundance Film Festival is receiving a $4 million donation to its indigenous Program from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. (KSL TV) FILE - Alan Arkin poses for a portrait in the Fender Music Lodge during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah on Jan. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Victoria Will, file)Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS Holding on to their secret and each other, mother and son set out to reclaim their sense of home, identity, and stability in New York City in "A Thousand And One," that won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival (Sundance Institute) FILE - Brooke Shields poses for a portrait to promote the film "Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields" at the Latinx House during the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21, 2023, in Park City, Utah. The docuseries premieres Monday on Hulu. (Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP)Credit: Invision Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, the director/producer/cinematographer of "20 Days in Mariupol," introduces the film at its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Friday, Jan. 20, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello) Utahn Jake Van Wagoner talking about his Sundance Film Festival film on Jan. 19, 2023, the festival's opening day. (KSL TV) Wrestler Scott Hall from "The Resurrection of Jake The Snake Roberts" poses for a portrait at the Village at the Lift Presented by McDonald's McCafe during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2015 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images) PROVO, UTAH - JANUARY 25: Robert Redford speaks at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival -Directors Brunch at Sundance Resort on January 25, 2020 in Provo, Utah. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images) Taylor Swift attends the 2020 Sundance Film Festival - "Miss Americana" Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 23, 2020 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images) PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 26:  Zac Efron and Lily Collins of 'Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile' attend The IMDb Studio at Acura Festival Village on location at The 2019 Sundance Film Festival - Day 2  on January 26, 2019 in Park City, Utah.  (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb) Actress/filmaker Amy Redford speaks onstage during An Artist at the Table Cocktail Reception and Dinner during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at DeJoria Center on January 18, 2018 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images) PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 20: A view of signage at the Egyptian theater before the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Dave Mangels/Getty Images)

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