About Utah: Utah Valley resident Sterling Van Wagenen was there before Redford

Published: Friday, Jan. 21 2011 1:29 a.m. MST

Robert Redford and Sterling Van Wagenen.____Sterling Van Wagenen had the idea to have a film festival in the late 1970s.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Sterling Van Wagenen plans to catch a Sundance movie or two this week, have dinner with friends in the film business, and try to outfox the Park City parking hassle along with everybody else.

What he doesn't plan on is being hounded for his autograph at every turn.

Which is weird, because if not for this man there wouldn't be a parking problem.

The only film festival going on here in January would be some snowboarder from Des Moines renting every video at Redbox.

But there is, and was, a Sterling Van Wagenen, and it was his brainstorm that kick-started the Sundance Film Festival way back when he was a younger man of 30.

In 1978 Van Wagenen worked for the Utah Arts Council. He wasn't far removed from graduating from BYU. A Provo native, he'd lived in Utah all his life. He loved movies and movie-making but the closest he'd gotten to Hollywood was on the occasional family vacation and, in 1958, when his older cousin Lola married a fledging actor named Robert Redford. Sterling was 10 years old.

Through the years he saw Redford here and there at the occasional family gathering, so the obvious inference would be that Redford brought his cousin-in-law into what has become the world's preeminent independent film festival.

But au contraire. It was the other way around.

While at the Arts Council, Sterling and a friend named John Earle, who worked for the Utah Film Commission, had put together a local festival celebrating American film that was part of the nationwide 1976 U.S. Bicentennial celebrations.

Thinking they should do more of those, in early 1978 Sterling approached Earle about organizing another film festival but with a fresh, new theme. Together they called Arthur Knight, a noted film professor at USC, to probe his brain.

Knight said he was beginning to see a lot more of what he called "regional low-budget feature films."

"If you want an original idea, devote some part of your festival to these feature films," was his advice.

Such films are now commonly called independent films.

With funding help from the Arts Council and the Film Commission, the Utah/U.S. Film Festival was off and running.

This is where Redford enters the picture.

Sterling was at a high school in Vernal, recruiting for the Arts Council, when the principal's secretary, all aflutter, handed him a note.

"Call Robert Redford," it said.

With a sudden new stature in the eyes of everyone in that school office, Sterling dialed the number.

An assistant answered and Redford came on the line.

"I hear you're trying to get a film festival off the ground and you're looking at these low-budget feature pictures," he said, explaining that such filmmaking was dear to his heart.

Days later they met at Redford's Sundance Resort and Redford agreed to be on the festival's board and, better yet, to show up at the festival.

"Sure enough, true to his word, he was there," remembers Van Wagenen. "He attended some of the films and even appeared on one of the panels."

When the festival was over, the indie films were the best-attended, the affair got great coverage in the likes of Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and played to audiences that exceeded more than 10,000 people. That was the good part. The bad part was they had gone $20,000 over budget.

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