Viewers of the Sundance Channel who may have worried that the sensibility of its founder, Robert Redford, would be lost with its sale in mid-June to Cablevision, take note: Redford is staying on as a consultant.
In his first interview since he and his partners in Sundance, NBC Universal and Showtime, sold it to Cablevision for nearly $500 million, Redford said he was planning a series of short films for mobile phones under the Sundance Channel moniker; he will probably direct them and did not rule out appearing in them as well. Redford also is working with the new owner on efforts stalled under his former partners, he said to bring more documentaries to the cable channel, which specializes in independent films, and to make it available overseas.
"We're going to construct an office for him, right near mine," said Josh Sapan, president and chief executive of Rainbow Media, the Cablevision unit that will operate Sundance. "I don't think he's done yet."
Redford, sounding very much engaged, said he was "interested in new technology" but "ultimately interested in whether we're providing stories well told."
Sitting alongside Redford at Sundance's soon-to-be-former offices at Broadway and 50th Street (it is moving to Rainbow's, at 11 Penn Plaza), Sapan said he had no plans to upend the programming of the channel, which Redford founded in 1996 as an offshoot of his film festival in Park City. It reaches about 30 million homes.
Independent films, at least some drawn from the festival, will still be its core, Sapan said, along with original series like "Iconoclasts" (in which visionaries from seemingly unrelated worlds talk to one another), "Live From Abbey Road" (a music series) and the forthcoming "Architecture School" (about students competing to design a low-cost house in a devastated section of New Orleans).
Under Rainbow Media's direction, Sundance will also continue a block of programs dedicated to compelling stories about the environment, including "Big Ideas for a Small Planet," which has showcased eco-friendly innovators and their projects.
For Cablevision, best known for its cable systems and its ownership of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers, the acquisition of Sundance is an attempt to give cachet and credibility to its constellation of channels, which, until recently, has been decidedly low-profile. Rainbow Media also oversees AMC which last year introduced the series "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad," both favorites of critics and IFC, which has "independent film" as part of its name.
Sapan said he hoped each channel would have an individual identity, with IFC continuing to pursue younger male viewers with original series like "The Whitest Kids U'Know," featuring a comedy troupe, and AMC seeking to mount television series with cinematic ambitions.
Redford's recent experience with NBC Universal and CBS, the parent of Showtime, suggests that Sundance still faces an uphill climb in an era in which independent films have struggled to find distributors and make money. Redford said he was regularly frustrated with his former partners' reluctance to provide sufficient investment to acquire a critical mass of worthy films for the Sundance Channel or to finance his dream of a wing of the channel devoted to documentaries.
"I was pretty naive about the corporate world," Redford said. "I didn't realize how strict a role the bottom line was going to play. I assumed I was going to be able to take the festival more intact onto television. That didn't happen. And there were two partners. That was tough."
Redford said he had hoped either NBC or Showtime would buy out the other's stake, but neither would. And so, he said, he proposed the outright sale of Sundance Channel. Its availability, in turn, caught the attention of the Dolan family, which runs Cablevision and which had sought, unsuccessfully, to be a partner at Sundance's founding a dozen years ago.
Asked about Redford's complaints, Stuart Zakim, a spokesman for Showtime, acknowledged that as Showtime grew in recent years, "our involvement in Sundance became less vital to our operations." But he also said that Redford and the other partners were "able to get a lot of money for Sundance."
Kathy Kelly-Brown, a spokeswoman for NBC, which inherited Sundance four years ago when it bought Universal, said she had no comment.
Redford, 71, emphasized that while he hopes to be as helpful to Rainbow as he can, he remains an actor and filmmaker first. Among his forthcoming movies is one about Jackie Robinson's shattering of the major league baseball color barrier; Redford will play Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers at the time.
"All this is to say," Redford added, in reference to Sundance, "is that this is not my day job."