PARK CITY — Robert Redford, the godfather of independent film, did not flinch as he declared that film "is not in a good place."
"It's tough for film in general," Redford said at the Sundance Film Festival's opening press conference Thursday, describing how new technology and changing tastes have threatened the industry.
For the 32nd consecutive year, Sundance is welcoming artists, filmmakers and movie buffs to Park City for 10 days of celebrating independent film. And for those who live or work in Park City, it's the start of a 10-day marathon.
"You know when you exercise, you get tired, and the coach says, 'Keep running some more?'" said Scott Petty, a manager of a sock store on Main Street. “That’s what it feels like.”
This year there are 195 films on the schedule, chosen from nearly 13,000 submissions, showing at 16 venues in Park City, Salt Lake City and Ogden.
The festival’s offerings often serve as a bellwether of the social and political issues at play in the U.S., according to Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper. This year, he said it's hot-button political topics like guns and abortion that are present.
"We show the films that are on the filmmakers' minds, especially in the documentary realm," said Cooper. "A number of years ago it was all about the financial crisis Now there’s a lot that’s permeating our whole reality.”
In a year where racial tensions have boiled over in cities and college campuses across the country, the movie industry itself has faced criticism for the underrepresentation of women and minorities.
The criticism comes at a time when TV viewership has flourished and movie audiences have fallen. While the television industry has started to embrace shows with minority casts such as "Empire" and "Jane the Virgin," critics have accused Hollywood of being slower to adapt. Film organizations like the Academy Awards have also been accused of ignoring the critically acclaimed work of black actors and directors.
Keri Putnam, the executive director of the Sundance Institute, pointed to the organization's support of female directors as an example of its “longtime commitment to diversity."
“We’re not an advocacy organization — our job is not to tell anyone in Hollywood what to do,” Putnam said. But she added that the organization recognizes it has “a seat at the table in terms of providing a constructive voice to decision-makers to say, ‘Hey, take a look at this range of talent.’”
Changing viewership habits and distribution models that favor on-demand services, like Netflix, have hurt the industry's bottom line, Redford said.
Those in the movie industry are also eyeing new media technology like virtual reality, which threatens to push the very boundaries of what is considered film. This year, Sundance will showcase several virtual reality films in its New Frontier installation.
The "explosion of VR (virtual reality) work is what this year is about," Cooper said. "We just felt it kept coming and kept coming."
In the midst of all this change, the big question for organizers is how to keep Sundance, Sundance.
At the time Redford chose to plant the festival in Utah, he said, "We wanted to keep things weird. It was different. It was offbeat. It wouldn't be the place you'd expect a festival to come."
But since its beginning, Sundance has grown into an international event that brings some 46,000 attendees, 2,000 volunteers and $80 million to Utah's economy every year.
"Any Park City native has mixed emotions about it," said Josh Pohlman, who manages a coffee and ice cream shop in town.
He credits Sundance for bringing customers and a culture to Park City that can't be re-created any other way — for example, the city owes its sprinkling of Banksys to the 2010 festival, when the reclusive graffiti artist premiered one of his films.
At the same time, Pohlman said, "Pulling into Main Street, the Kimball Art Center is now Samsung. Sky (a local bar) is now Acura. It's interesting to see the commercialization of it."
Brian Sykes, a 24-year-old festivalgoer from Spartanburg, S.C., said Sundance's appeal is its intimacy. Last year, he ran into author David Lipsky at the premiere of his own movie adaptation ("End of the Tour").
"It's a one-of-a-kind experience," said Sykes, who arrived in Park City a full 10 hours before the start of the first screening. "South Carolina doesn't have a film culture at all."30 comments on this story
Sykes likes that Sundance resists the tendency of big studios to rely on "tentpole blockbusters" that seem to spawn "sequels and sequels," he said.
A few blocks away and a few hours later, Redford was on stage talking about the financial challenges facing independent film.
"Money is at the core, and changing times are at the core," Redford said.
But it's always been that way, he said, even when he first started the festival in 1978 as a way for independent filmmakers to stand up to mainstream media.
"I think it's always changing," Redford said. "The game is always changing."