PARK CITY — Whatever else the Sundance Film Festival is, Robert Redford says its main purpose is the art of filmmaking and storytelling.
The founder and president of the Sundance Institute said that while "times are dark and grim" and the U.S. has a government "in paralysis," the festival is a bright spot.
"Even though the work reflects hard times, there's not paralysis here," Redford said during a press conference kicking off the festival. "They're breathing life into fresh, new stories."
The 10-day Sundance Film Festival officially opened with the premiere of four separate films in Park City Thursday night. On Friday, it will open in Salt Lake City as well with a gala at the Rose Wagner Theater featuring a showing of the film "Robot and Frank," starring Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon.
At its heart, Redford said, the festival has been about films even if it has expanded massively during its 28 years. There was a time when 30 to 40 films were submitted and he was able to watch every one that was featured in the sole theater that was used, he said.
Now, as many as 5,000 films are submitted for consideration, said John Cooper, program director of the Sundance Institute. This year, 181 films will be shown at the festival.
Redford acknowledges "the hype" that now surrounds the festival and said that while he will neither condone nor criticize it, it has not altered the purpose.
"Our mission has stayed the same — creating a place for individual artists to show their work," Redford said. "There are those people who say, 'Why give money to art? It means nothing.' I think it means a lot and we're here to try and prove how much it does mean. So we can only do what we can do, but we're going to keep doing it."
While the festival has come to be known as a hub for celebrities and those on the hunt to catch glimpses of Hollywood stars, the only people visible Thursday along Park City's largely quiet Main Street were those setting up pop-up tents and heating lamps, volunteers in fluorescent, coral-colored jackets and those with Sundance credentials in various colors.
Jenny Roh, 21, a festival volunteer from Seattle, said she has come to Park City to attend the festival the past two years, patiently waiting until this year when she was old enough to work as a volunteer.
"I love films and I love Park City. It's kind of a second home," she said. "I'm so thrilled to be here."
She was barely into her first day, but already had high praise for the experience and organization of the festival. And while she has a few films she is hoping to catch, the experience will keep her coming back.
"It's the people," she said. "Everyone's super nice, warm and friendly. It's like a family. I plan on coming back every single year as long as I live."
Meagan Gonsalves, a Park City native and employee at Dolly's Books on Main Street, said she "hated" the festival when she was in high school.
"The older I've gotten, the more it's a fun thing," she said. "Now it's more about the movies and less about the parties. It's better."
Gonsalves said the store sees a decent amount of business, especially as they feature a number of author events during the festival. But it doesn't match Christmas season.
Linda Webber of Dugin's West on Main Street said many see the store's Park City-themed merchandise as an alternative to the Sundance Festival that tends to be more expensive. They stocks the store shelves in anticipation of the festival and try to cater to the diverse clientele.
"They like a lot of black," Webber said.
Acura, one of the festival's sponsors, was among several businesses to open its own shop on the historic Main Street. It's featuring "The Acura Studio" for the duration of the festival. Susie Rossick, brand manager for Acura, said the company felt the "independent, spirited" mission of the festival was a good match to its own.
There, an Acura TL special edition that was used in the "Avengers" film to be released in May is prominently displayed in a window and a sound studio has been set up to showcase the sound systems found in the vehicles.
"This is the first time Acura's taken over, so to speak," Rossick said. "We're really excited. Acura is not traditional luxury, but more modern luxury. It makes sense for us to be here."
The space will be open to the public during the day and then closed at night for exclusive, festival-related dinners and premiere after-parties.
The festival is known for the mix of established actors and directors and those up-and-coming in the film industry. Among the more established filmmakers showcasing their work at the festival this year are Spike Lee with his urban drama "Red Hook Summer," in which he reprises the character he played in "Do the Right Thing"; Julie Delpy with the relationship comedy "2 Days in New York," in which she stars with Chris Rock; and rapper-turned-actor Ice-T will make his directorial debut with a hip-hop history documentary.
Actors and actresses with films in the festival include: Robert De Niro, Vera Farmiga, Emily Blunt, Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, David Duchonvy, Bruce Willis, Richard Gere, Bradley Cooper, Rashida Jones and Zoe Saldana.
The Sundance Film Festival continues through Jan. 28.