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Becoming Sundance: The Development of America’s Premiere Film Festival

Written by , on June 11, 2010 at 9:25 pm 

As June is the month of the Sundance Directors Lab, the writers of The Film Stage saw this as being an appropriate moment to reflect back upon the early days of all things Sundance.The Sundance Film Festival occupies an interesting space in history, as it was the first film festival to focus specifically on American film, and it helped to escalate the American independent film movement. In 2009, the Sundance Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, showcasing reflective trailers with images dating back to 1985. What is interesting about this is that the festival had actually started in 1978, and 1985 simply reflects the year in which the Sundance Institute took over its management. One might assume that in this take over was also a name change, and that 1985 reflects when it became known as Sundance. However, it was not actually renamed the Sundance Film Festival until after the 1990 festival, so the fact that these earlier years seemed dismissed is even more interesting.

As the Sundance Institute would describe it, the institute was first created in 1981 to help foster new voices in American film, and then when those new voices needed a platform from which to be heard, the festival was launched in 1985. There is truth in this description, but with any abbreviation or simplification, so much of what shaped and defined the festival is lost in this linear compression. What this version of history suggests is that there was a single moment, and then Sundance simply just began.

As historian and theorist Michel Foucault would argue, the trouble with an origin point is that there was always something before. Indeed, 1985 did mark the beginning of something new, but that something grew out of many earlier happenings. As Foucault described, “A genealogy of values, morality, asceticism, and knowledge will never confuse itself with a quest for their “origins,” will never neglect as inaccessible all the episodes of history. On the contrary, it will cultivate the details and accidents that accompany every beginning; it will be scrupulously attentive to their petty malice; it will await their emergence, once unmasked, as the face of the other.”

The creation of Sundance was not a single moment in time, but rather it developed out of a number of different circumstances that were happening synchronously, and whose paths crossed and became intertwined. “Creation” in this case is a moment when multiple paths intersected through shared occurrences and motivations. History in this case is a series of trajectories, and when these multiple trajectories intersected and aligned, something new was formed.

The twelve years leading up to the festival’s final renaming paint a more encompassing image of how this festival developed its identity, and came to be known as Sundance. The trajectories to examine are changes within the film industry, the launch of the Utah/US Film Festival, the influences that shaped Robert Redford’s involvement, the establishment of the Sundance Institute, and the impact of the Institute eventually assuming the festival, up until it was finally renamed Sundance. These four parts need recognition, as history and influence are part of identity, and were important factors in shaping the festival in its infancy. They helped to define the mission it would dedicate itself to over the following decades. Without any one of their influences, the Sundance Film Festival would not exist, or at least not in the form it does. Therefore, this all-encompassing approach to its history is essential.

However, it is also important to recognize that this is a limited timeline, as the festival has continued to evolve over the years, so it must be said that this paper does not extend into current time for a reason. Beginning in 1989 there were many big changes in the world of independent film, and incorporating these external forces would detract from the impact of the early influences. The world of independent film is always changing, both as tastes change and as new technologies become available, and as a result Sundance will always have to refine and redefine its focus and mission. This is a history of how that mission began.

Changes Within the Film Industry and Emerging Technologies

At the time that the United States Film Festival launched on the scene, American cinema was in a state of transition. The cinematic wave known as New Hollywood had end by 1975, as the civil rights and anti-war movements that had helped propel the films of that time receded. Studios abandoned experimentation for megabuck fantasies, trying to target a young generation interested in special effects. Studio movies were also becoming increasingly expensive, due to increases in star salaries and union fees, and the inability of studios to control their directors and producers. John Daly, head of a small distributor called Hemdale Releasing describe the cost situation as dismal, saying, “The overhead of running a studio is so enormous that their movies must do $100 million at the box office.” Director Nicholas Meyer seconded this notion when he claimed, “The studios don’t just want home runs. They want grand slams. Anything less than $100 million is not interesting to them.”

There was also a shift in Hollywood executive power. As Waldo Salt, Academy Award winning screenwriter remembers the transition:

The deal-makers have taken over the business. I got a lot of laughs during [a] recent Hollywood strike when I pointed out to my fellow writers that five of my former agents had become studio heads. Now the number is seven. In the old days at least, L.B. Mayer and Thalberg saw the script as a commodity; they tried to get people like Dorothy Parker and William Faulkner to work for them; then they’d mess up the writing. Now, people see scripts as talking papers to get a hot star or director interested in a package. It’s a question of priorities.

Venues were also changing, as there was an influx of new multiplex theaters, boosting up to 14 screens, offering an increased demand for cinematic variety. At the same time, the development of video technology became increasing important to the film industry, both in terms of production and distribution. Video provided a cheaper stock than film, which provided a more affordable method of production, along with an increased popularity of the home movie. It also greatly increased distribution opportunities. Ira Deutchman, from the distribution company UA Classics, described the situation as:

Many of these start-up video companies were so hungry for product to put on their shelves that anything with sprocket holes was worth a certain amount of money to them. Those folks had no interest whatsoever in foreign language films because people didn’t want to read subtitles. These American films, despite the fact that they didn’t reach a large audience theatrically, were worth something on video.

Audience demographics were also changing, film audiences of the late ‘70s and ‘80s represented a generation that had grown up in the ‘60s, having had great exposure to film, and seeing it as their method of communicating their views and visions. The baby boomer generation was getting older, there was suddenly a larger, older age bracket that was interested in smaller, more serious films.

The Utah/United States Film Festival

The Utah/United States Film Festival was founded in 1978, spearheaded by Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania. The festival was created to serve Utah’s arts and commercial needs; Van Wagenen, the film graduate representing the arts, and Earle and Catania representing the commercial on behalf of the Utah Film Commission. Formed in 1974, the Utah Film Commission was a part of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, with the charge of recruiting revenues for the state through area film productions. The festival was an idea born out of furthering this mission.

The festival was created with three purposes in mind. First and foremost, it was to serve as a National event that would attract the film industry to Utah, being the main reason why the Utah Film Commission was involved. Second, on an educational note, it was meant to enhance the film-going public’s understanding and appreciation of film through its carefully selected retrospective programming. Third and finally, there would be a competition for small, regional films being made outside the system. The festival would showcase these films, exposing them to a wider audience. This would serve as a spotlight for the filmmakers, while the notion of a competition would add a sense of urgency and expectation to the whole festival.

Sterling Van Wagenen was then the head of Robert Redford’s production company, Wildwood Enterprises, and cousin of Redford’s wife Lola Van Wagenen. Redford, a Utah resident, became the inaugural chairman of the festival. He felt that the festival could create an exchange of ideas between outside filmmakers and Utah filmmakers, while also generating greater interest in movies.

The first Utah/US Film Festival held in Salt Lake City, Utah, from September 6 through 12. While the festival was going to be simply called the United States Film Festival, “Utah” was added to the title at the last minute, hoping to clarify its local roots, as many festivals of the time were named after their place of origin (New York Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, etc.). One aspect of this festival that would set it apart from others was that it would have a different theme each year. It was also the largest festival in the western states, outside of California. The theme of the first festival retrospective was “American Landscapes, Cycles of Hope and Despair: the South, the West, the City.” Within this theme, current issues in American life would be examined, as they’re illustrated in motion pictures. Approximated 50 films were screened in this section.

Festival director Van Wagenen stated the festival would be an “interchange and examination of the relation of film to our culture.” The event did draw a sizable crowd, as approximately 11,000 people attended this first festival. However, festival planners were surprised by which screening people chose to see, as the small, regional films in the competition turned out to be the most attended. An article in American Cinematographer summed it up best:

The essence of the event came from the Regional Cinema Competition in which you, often struggling, independent filmmakers were invited to submit films for judging… For the first time, all agreed, the independent filmmaker was provided with a showcase for his work and a chance to show it to Hollywood/New York names and representatives of “The System”… A summary session on the Future of Regional Cinema included a consensus that the festival has at last provided regional filmmakers with the forum they have been seeking.

This was an interesting revelation for the festival, but also an unfortunate one, as the festival had ended up in debt largely due to expensive screening licenses for the under attended retrospective films. However, the overwhelming debt was in some ways a blessing in disguise in ensuring the perseverance of the festival into the next year, as the only way to pay off the debt was to have another festival, from which to make money.

Preparation for the second festival began shortly after the conclusion of the first, but without Van Wagenen as a leader. Feeling embarrassed and discouraged about the amount of debt accumulated, he left the festival to head a pilot program of what would become the Sundance Institute. The second festival would be a slightly scaled-down event (lasting only 5 days instead of 7), with the hope that it would earn enough money to put a dent in the existing $40k of debt.

Aside from balancing pressure from collection calls, the festival staff was also challenged in finding regional films that were feature-length. With the cost of production and the lack of distribution available, feature-length independent films just were not being created in volume in the 1970s. Short films were the more common medium.

In his book Party in a Box, Lory Smith describes the challenges they faced: “Back in 1978, the mood was very different, simply because no one knew what the hell we were talking about. The idea of independent film had yet been defined and articulated. People only had a cursory understanding of the difference between movies and films.” It was also challenging to get people to submit prints, due to the costs of sending a print for preview, predating the existence of videocassettes and DVDs.

Cirina Hampton took over as the Executive Director of the Festival. She was still working for the Utah Film Commission office, but they loaned her to the festival in hopes of helping it run smoother. At the second festival, the Independent Filmmakers’ Seminar was introduced. This seminar focused around a number of different topics, such as financing and distribution, involving a number of key industry players in the dialogues. It was an exciting event in that it demonstrated that people within the industry wanted to participate in a forum involving the exchange of ideas and information. The only drawback was the festival crowd of the time was mostly local residents, as opposed to aspiring filmmakers who would have really benefited from the material presented. However, this tradition would persist, and these dialogues would become a hallmark of the festival.

The 1979 festival took place from October 26-30, its second and final year in Salt Lake City. In this year, the festival made a profit for the first time, and was able to pay off half of its $40k debt. Also, for the second year in a row, the unknown competition films were the most attended. This led competition programmer Lory Smith to the idea of refocusing the festival, having the new independent films become the main program of the festival, and then supplementing them with a few premieres and retrospectives. He had been further inspired for this switch after attending the first Independent Feature Project in New York.

While planning was underway for a 1980 festival, it ended up being pushed a few months into January of 1981. This change came about due to a recommendation made by Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, a fellow Utah resident, had been a close friend of Redford’s for many years, having first worked together on the film War Hunt. Pollack casually suggested to the festival staff, “You ought to move the festival to Park City and set it in the wintertime. You’d be the only film festival in the world held in a ski resort during ski season, and Hollywood would beat down the door to attend.” The festival staff followed through with this recommendation, which would help shape the festival towards its present-day state.

Also new for the 1981 festival was a name change: The United States Film and Video Festival. The word “video” was added to the festival title, as the board wanted to be inclusive of this new medium, thinking it would be progressive and cutting edge. However, the name change preceded action, as the festival wasn’t able to integrate videos into its programming until the following year.

Over the following years, the festival continued to gain attention and momentum, but was forever faced with financial troubles that would continuously leave the board of directors divided. This friction can to a head after the 1984 festival, when it became clear that an intervention was needed in order for the festival to continue.

Robert Redford: The Developing Artist

As his influence played an important role in the development of what would become the Sundance Film Festival, it is important to have an understanding of Robert Redford as a person, and the influences that have shaped him. It is important to understand what events impacted this very private man in such a way, that he wanted to create mentoring experiences and exhibition avenues for younger artists, willing to become a public figurehead in the process.

He began first as an artist, who found his way into a successful acting career. As his career progressed, his artistic urges drove him to explore the aspects of filmmaking. His first foray was as a producer, establishing his own production company, Wildwood Enterprises. In 1969, he produced his first film, which was called Downhill Racer. It told the story of a professional athlete, dealing with personal internal struggles while trying to maintain his desired public persona. It was a type of role Redford identified with, telling what he saw as a humanistic story.

However, due to mismanagement in distribution, the film was a failure at the box office, meeting a very short end. This was heartbreaking to Redford, and it left a lasting impact on him, making him aware of the nurturing independent films need. In his words, he began to understand the dilemma of the “filmmaker who spends two years making his film, and then another two years distributing it, only to find out he can’t make any money on it, and four years of his life is gone. I thought that’s who needs help.”

About a decade later, Redford would make his directorial debut with the film Ordinary People. It was an important experience for him to take, further exploring the craft while proving himself as an artist. “This project had so little going for it, in terms of the token commercial aspects. No car chases, no sex, no violence – although it’s an emotionally violent piece,” he stated. “But I wanted to direct it, because for me it’s a step forward, it’s a step out there. To a lot of people it may seem that I’ve suddenly directed a film. But I’ve been producing since 1969, and this may have been coming longer than people realize.”

This was a very important shift for him personally, as it was both a new challenge and a new form of expression. “At the risk of sounding mystical, life is movement,” he reflected. “It’s all a struggle. So you say, ‘Well how do I know if I can direct or not?’ Well, you’re just going to try.” This was his foray to becoming a filmmaker, and understanding both the pleasures and pains that come with the profession, and reconnecting with his early artistic roots. As he thought at the time:

I look at directing as a natural step. I’ve been frustrated for many years in wanting to have total control of something. It’s like doing a painting. I started out to be an artist, and one this that I’ve always missed as an actor was that when you painted a picture, it was yours. No one came in and changed anything for you – altered the diagonal or put sienna in there. In making a film, you have directors and producers and editors and sound people who want to alter your performance. No question, it’s a collaborative medium… But directing comes about as close as you can get to having it exactly as you want.

This experience opened Redford’s eyes up to some of the challenges facing a first time director, especially those who have not had formal film school training. As his Ordinary People cinematographer, John Bailey, noted, “Redford has very strong instincts about what he wants visually, but not the technical vocabulary to articulate it. So we spend a lot of time going back and forth, trying to see what the other means… It’s been very interesting – and sometimes very frustrating.” Redford became aware of how limiting lack of technical experience could be, and that those limitations must be worked through to achieve one’s artistic vision.

Robert Redford: Utah as a Haven

Being a very private individual with increasing celebrity status, Redford decided to raise his family away from the public eye. In the early 1960s, he fell in love with the mountains of Utah, and the seclusion they provided. He purchased a small lot of land a short distance from Provo and built a modest home.  The land he chose was located in the Wasatch Mountains, which he discovered while traveling on motorcycle to visit his mother’s family in Texas.

When the early ‘70s brought about a condominium boom, Redford began buying up more land, fearing that developers would soon ruin the natural beauty that he loved so much. “We’re a Manifest Destiny country, and development-oriented,” he noted fearfully. “It’s just a question of time before we develop a way to live inside things we create rather than living with nature.” This led to the acquisition of about 4000 acres.

Economically, it was difficult to hold onto that amount of land without some sort of development or revenue stream, so Redford set out to create such a model that would preserve as much of the environment as possible. In 1969, he bought the Timp Haven ski area, which would eventually become the Sundance Resort, naming it after his character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Redford saw the resort as a way of incorporating economic stability while preserving the character of the environment. In his own words, “I would have loved to leave Sundance the way I found it and the way it was a hundred years ago, but that was impossible- there are no private nature preserves. We’ve tried to strike a balance between guarded development and realistic preservation.”

However, the ski resort turned out not to be as financially viable as he had hoped. Compared to other area resorts, his had a comparatively lower elevation, which translated to the shorter ski season with less snow. As a result, the resort was poorly attended, and soon ran into financial trouble, forcing Redford to look for other sources of revenue.

Having admired what Walter Paepke had done with the town of Aspen, Colorado, where the Aspen Institute had turned a sleepy town into a popular winter Mecca, he wanted to find a way to engage an arts community with his own Sundance resort. Redford often stated that he’d always missed “a sense of community, of a workplace, where you could experiment, exchange ideas, and get excited without some meter ticking away.” Van Wagenen confirmed this conviction by stating, “He’s talked about that from the beginning. He’s always come in on the tail end of some communal exercise. He was too late for the heyday of the Actors Studio. He came in on the last days of live television and the studio system. He’s always missed that kind of vital, giving, creative community of artists.”

In the end, Redford’s method of protecting his home and the land he loved was to create the artistic community for others that he had always felt he had missed. It was enough to propel him into a project that he would dedicate the next few decades of his life to. In his own words:

Do you know what I learned from Utah, from living my life as I have? That you only keep things if you’re willing to take risks- that you should make the best use you can of places and time, because with a certain success, a certain refinement of your life, you can lose the very thing you started with, or you think you stand to lose it because the stakes are so high…so you try something new.

That something new would have a lasting impact on the film industry, helping to give rise to the growing movement of American independent films.

The Sundance Institute

Shortly after the 1978 Utah/US Film Festival, Sterling VanWagenen contacted Lory Smith about an idea that he and Robert Redford had been discussing. They wanted to find a way to bring an arts community to Redford’s Sundance resort, and had decided to have a planning conference to decide what that community would be. They enlisted Smith’s help, having been impressed with his work in finding films for the festival, and had him begin to locate funding.

Using his land to host the institute, Redford thought, “It would keep us away from this creeping danger in our industry, which was things were getting more centralized and costly. So costs were going up, the choices were getting narrowed, and distribution was advancing. So it was a fairly grime future. Not that I thought I was going to change it overnight, but it was something, and that was the beginning of the Sundance Arts Program.”

Various comparable institutions such as the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and the Eugene O’Neill Theater in Waterford, CT were traveled to and observed as research for how the institute could be designed. The O’Neill Playwrights Conference served as great inspiration, as it was a workshop that brought young playwrights together with professionals from theater and television in a mentoring atmosphere. George White, the director of the Playwrights Conference participated in the Sundance planning conference.

By the summer of 1979, the National Endowment for the Arts had awarded $8,000 towards the fall conference that would determine what Sundance would be. The conference took place in November, and ideas for the institute were discussed over the three days. “Above all, I didn’t want it to be a film school or any kind of festival,” stated Redford. “I never learned anything in school, and I’m not big on festivals because people aren’t really exchanging ideas, they’re just lecturing each other. I want some action, for this to be a work-oriented place.”

At the time of the conference, Redford, reflected on how the industry has changed over the years:

In the late Sixties, the big studios passed from the hands of the old moguls to corporate giants- say, General Foods, or some auto-parts manufacturer. The people who took over assumed you could run an art form like a business, with a computerized, businesslike approach. But then a lot of multimillion-dollar films, with big, big budgets, went right on their ass. There’s something very natural about the film business that makes it impossible to calculate entirely… So the corporate guys went under, and there was a new wave- agents, say, as heads of studios. And we saw what kind of corruption that led to. Now, I think, somebody has finally gotten the idea of letting filmmakers make the films. Try to keep some control over their budgets and their impulses, but, essentially, let them make the film.

Redford perceived that the film industry was getting narrowed as it was getting increasingly expensive, and that alternative voices were being excluded from American films. The Sundance Institute was meant to stay small, to teach people how to tell simple, human stories again.

In a letter welcoming Sundance Institute participants, Redford describe the their address to the moment as such:

The formation of this Institute comes at a time when the film industry faces a condition in which the rising cost of making traditional Hollywood films is causing studios to cut back on the number of films that they make. Simultaneously, an increasing number of movie theatres and new outlets in technology are creating a demand that is larger than ever for new products. The Sundance Institute intends to help bridge that gap. By allowing filmmakers to improve their skills and increase their ability to gain access to the marketplace, the Institute will provide new opportunities for regional filmmakers from here in Utah and around the country.

In 1981, the first session took place at Redford’s Sundance Resort. It ended up being the perfect supporting relationship, as the resort provided a secluded community, and the institute became the resort’s biggest single customer in terms of facilities rentals. A handful of projects/scripts were selected, and those filmmakers would stay at the resort for the month of June, and would workshop their projects with a group of creative advisers.

Steve Wax, a Los Angeles filmmaker and institute fellow that year described the sense of awe felt by the selected participants. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he explained. “I couldn’t believe anyone would say to me, ‘We want you to come here at our expense and we’ll do anything we can to help your project.’ As an independent filmmaker, you’re so accustomed to people asking ‘Why should I help you!’ not ‘How can I help out.’”

The supportive spirit of the place also captured many of the mentors. Sydney Pollack, one of the creative advisors quipped, “I wish there’d been something like Sundance when I was coming along. As it is, Sundance helps me anyway. I’m forced to articulate things I take for granted.”

New technology also played an important role in the teachings of the institute; video equipment was just being developed at the time, which the institute took full advantage of. As much of the lab’s time was dedicated to script work and seminars, only about one week was spent working on production, so the speed and intimacy of video was incredibly beneficial, allowing the filmmakers to instantly see their work. Recordings were made for educational, and tapes were not allowed to leave the institute. This helped alleviate a fear of failure and disgrace, and really helped to encourage directors to take risks and try new things. The tapes were so protected, that filmmaker’s weren’t even able to see each other’s tapes without the approval of the staff. The use of video equipment was also seen as a way to explore and experiment with the possibilities of electric cinema without the risk of financial investment.

The institute also saw this as a way to introduce filmmakers to a new type of media. According to Sterling Van Wagenen, “The exciting thing about video technology for us is not the Star Wars, outer space technology stuff, but that it’s a technology that’s sufficiently inexpensive, once you get past the initial equipment costs, to allow an artist to work again and again at very little cost. So the video technology can be key to the artist’s ability to tell a story.”

The lab also gave the filmmakers the opportunity to work with professional actors, with the mounting pressure of a budget or deadline to cripple the staging process. This was a rare occurrence for a filmmaker to have, and one that was beneficial to many. As actor Fisher Stevens described it:

Here we sit down and talk about it, and as you see, things get done, changes are made. That’s really important. The director is really flexible here. Of course, it’s not a 5 to 10 million-dollar movie; it’s Sundance, as we say. So, we can afford to mess around with it, and I think it’s really important because so many times you have scripts being made that are trash, and they have incredible possibilities, but nobody takes the time or effort to go through them and fine tune them… It’s a nice luxury to have.

The experience was challenging, and sometimes overwhelming, but overall the participants embraced it, taking advantage of all it had to offer. Marisa Silver, a 1982 lab participant described it as, “You have to allow yourself to be vulnerable and ask for help, otherwise you won’t get anything from it. The filmmakers are uncompetitive amongst themselves, partly because the administration and the resource people are like that. The good feelings trickle down, and everyone is supportive of each other.”

Rather than viewing Sundance as an alternative to Hollywood, Redford saw their supporting role as a way to broaden the Hollywood spectrum. “Fear is a very big platform for how things operate in Hollywood. The stakes are so high, there’s so much tension, that it’s hard to work, even for me.” He reflected. “So what’s it like for the young talent coming along? We’d like to create an umbrella, an alternative to this incredible pressure, but not mollycoddle anyone. I’m not interested in the ‘independent’ filmmaker who ‘disdains’ Hollywood, but isn’t good enough to succeed there.”

In 1983, the Sundance Institute began to interact more with the United States Film Festival, coordinating its “Survival Techniques” seminars, dedicated to educating filmmakers about the business side of film. Van Wagenen explained this integration with, “We would like to be effective in getting films made and into the marketplace. We want to create a working environment that is supportive in helping writers and directors realize the intentions behind their film- in a way audiences will respond to.”

A few years into its existence, the institute initiated a production fund to assist Sundance projects find their way to theaters, but finding distribution for the films was still an overwhelming challenge. Sydney Pollack voiced concerns for those he had mentored in this situation; “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, does it make a noise? There is no noise with a movie unless somebody watches it.” Even with the education and network developed at the labs, many of the participating filmmaker continued to struggle with distribution. The Sundance Institute began to see a growing need for a platform to display these films to an audience. As Van Wagenen stated, “The question is, ‘What happens to these projects after they go through the production cycle?’” The institute had help develop a number of budding filmmakers, and now they needed a platform to display the fruits of their labor.

The Sundance Film Festival

In 1984, the Sundance Institute took over management of the US Film Festival, just prior to the 1985 festival. The festival needed the institute, as it was struggling financially, and had a divided board. Initially, Redford and the institute had been resistant from connecting with the festival, not viewing it as part of their mission. This had changed over time, as they began to realize that they were helping filmmakers create their films, and then there was no venue for the final product.

Right from the beginning, the institute had set goals for the festival. “We made three assumptions concerning the festival,” stated Van Wagenen. “First, it should remain in Park City. Second, the thrust should be independent film. Third, funding for the festival needs to have a broader base, a national constituency.” Having the Sundance name attached to the festival helps to boost national recognition, and financial support from New York and Los Angeles. Sundance and the festival worked symbiotically to put each other on the map, the festival providing a public forum through which the institute could articulate its vision, and the institute providing brand power to launch the festival to international notoriety.

Prior to the 1985 festival, Tony Safford was brought on board as the festival’s managing director, and in his first year he introduce a category for international films. Also in that year, the short-lived video component was dropped from the festival, with the idea of having its own separate competition elsewhere if there proved a need.

By the late 80s, Hollywood began to really take notice in the independent films being promoted through festivals. In 1986, of the 500 or so films that were produced in Hollywood, about 300 of them were done outside of the major studios. In that same year, of the Oscar nominees for best picture, only one of the films (Children of a Lesser God) was considered a studio project, and a low-budget one at that. Additionally, 42 percent of the total nominations were not for films distributed by the eight major studios.

David Ansen of Newsweek summed the moment up best when he said:

What the independents have going for them- and this includes not just the filmmakers but the new breed of movie-buff executives- is a new passion for film. You could feel this spirit in Park City, Utah, last January at the United States Film Festival, a gathering sponsored by Sundance and devoted to independent film. Attended by everybody who was anybody in independent movies- and many scouting and skiing studio bigwigs as well- there was an undisputed sense of community, remarkably free of the competitive ego wars of Hollywood. Indeed, you might have thought you’d stumbled into a reunion of ‘60s veterans, their former political passions rechanneled into celluloid.

This momentum reached a brief pause when the stock market crashed in 1987. This caused a number of small production companies and distribution companies to go bankrupt, and for video stores to reduce their stock to Hollywood blockbusters. Redford looked upon this moment with reflective eyes, and noted:

The film industry always survives. Through thick and thin, through inflations and recessions, it survives better than most. It’s up, down, boom and bust, but it’s never out… There are good signs to this new consolidation, but it may mean an even greater eye to the bottom line, which will threaten the independents. Just a few years ago there was a big hurrah coming out of the independent film world, a cry of enthusiasm and glee. The independent market- the financing and festivals- had started to increase. Now it may get harder to get distribution.

However, this crash did not stop people from creating or seeking out independent films, as in 1989, the United States Film Festival sold over 30,000 tickets. In that same year, Steven Soderbergh premiered his first film, Sex, Lies & Videotape. This film create a frenzy, as a bidding war began after its screening, and represents a period when Sundance began to be viewed as a marketplace for new, undiscovered talent, which helped to garnish the festival worldwide recognition. Soderbergh was also the recipient of the festival’s audience award, which was launched that year.

The festival went through various name changes over the years: The Utah/US Film Festival, The United States Film and Video Festival, The United States Film Festival, The Sundance/United States Film Festival. In 1990, at the end of his festival career, Tony Safford would rename the fest the Sundance Film Festival, and that is how it remains today.

Final Thoughts

As one can see, this was not a linear chain of events, but rather a series of chains taking place in the same series of time, intersecting at certain moments. Technology and venues were changing in ways that encouraged the production of independent films, but this was also reliant on the fact that there was an aging audience who was interested in these new films being made. The United States Film Festival stumbled upon these changes, and provided a platform for viewing, but lacked the infrastructure to sustain itself. The Sundance Institute was founded as a way of creating an arts community, but that notion rose out from the Sundance Resort needing a source of income to help protect the land. Finally, the institute and the festival eventually came together, but only at a moment when they both needed each other.

Each other these elements have had their individual history recorded in other sources. While these sources are not to be negated, they are limiting in their scope, providing a narrow perspective of how and why these things happened. By examining these histories within the context of each other, through all of their interconnection, one achieves a more rounded picture of how the Sundance Film Festival came to be: from the highly retrospective festival it started as to the progressive one it has become: from looking back to “What’s Next?”

Note: There were many sources utilized to write this article. If you would like a list of them, please feel free to contact us.


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