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

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 10:19 p.m. MDT

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) 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.

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) 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)

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.

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) 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)

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.

Singer, actor, social activist and subject of the opening film of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Harry Belafonte is greeted by MASH's original series actor Wayne Rogers (right)  at the Eccles Theater in Park City on the first day of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on  Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011.  The film Singer, actor, social activist and subject of the opening film of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Harry Belafonte is greeted by MASH's original series actor Wayne Rogers (right) at the Eccles Theater in Park City on the first day of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011. The film "SING YOUR SONG" kicks off the 10 day festival. Mike Terry, Deseret NewsYOUR SONG, a documentary about musician, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte. Mike Terry, Deseret NewsYOUR SONG, a documentary about musician, actor and social activist Harry Belafonte. Mike Terry, Deseret News (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

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.

Remembers Van Wagenen: "When the whole thing was over I went back down to Sundance thinking that I'll talk to Bob and he'll write a check and fix this. I showed him all the press clippings, the national publicity and then added, Oh, by the way we went over budget by $20,000 and that's about as far as I got. Bob said, 'you know, I've been thinking about starting some kind of film center here at Sundance that would be devoted to these independent filmmakers. Is that something you'd be interested in?' I said that interested me a lot. He said 'great,' stood up, walked out of the room and that was the end of the meeting. I was a little confused. I thought, well, I didn't get my money, but I got a job."

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) 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)

From that meeting, the Sundance Institute was created, Sterling Van Wagenen became its first director, and by 1985 the Institute rescued the still standing but still financially struggling Utah/U.S. Film & Video Festival. Sterling had his baby back. In 1991 the name was changed to Sundance.

Van Wagenen left the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival years ago and has made his own name as a filmmaker. Among his many producing successes is "A Trip to Bountiful," a Sundance hit and an Academy Award winner for Geraldine Page as Best Actress. Currently, at 63, he lives in Utah Valley and works as an executive producer for the LDS Church while still pursuing his own independent projects.

He'll be part of the Sundance buzz the next 10 days, albeit a limited part.

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) 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)

"I'll get up to the festival and have dinner with friends and maybe see two or three films," he says. "I've really been away from it for a very long time. It was a great and hugely important part of my life and my early career and I'll always be grateful for that."

He buys his tickets "like everybody else" and parks his car "like everybody else."

And if no one recognizes him, he's fine with that.

"I just don't have the inclination to go back and remind everybody, you know this is how it all started," he says. "The benefit for me isn't to continue to relive the creation story. They want to identify this as Robert Redford's film festival but Bob has always been very generous about remembering the people who were there in the very beginning. It's a great part of my life that has now moved into the wake. I'm just happy this thing is still alive."

Robert Redford and Sterling Van Wagenen.____Sterling Van Wagenen had the idea to have a film festival in the late 1970s. (Mike Terry, Deseret News) Robert Redford and Sterling Van Wagenen.____Sterling Van Wagenen had the idea to have a film festival in the late 1970s. (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Lee Benson's About Utah columns runs Monday and Friday.

e-mail: benson@desnews.com.

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