PARK CITY — The Sundance Film Festival officially kicked off its 34th season Thursday with festival officials directly addressing the cloud of sexual misconduct hanging over the movie industry.
News of ousted industry executive Harvey Weinstein's alleged sexual misconduct sent waves throughout the industry, with countless allegations against other celebrities in its wake. Weinstein and his company were a consistent presence at Sundance, regularly acquiring the festival's films for wider distribution.
Sundance officials voiced disappointment over Weinstein’s alleged actions Thursday, and attempted to distance themselves and the festival from them.
“While of course those things sickened us and happened during our festival, they’re nothing we were aware of at the time,” said Sundance Institute Director Keri Putnam.
“We’re talking about all this Harvey Weinstein stuff, which, you know, we’re almost past Harvey at this point. We’re on to change. And I’m kind of sick of him," added John Cooper, the festival's director.
Putnam and Cooper joined Sundance Institute President and Director Robert Redford as part of an opening day panel.
Allegations of misconduct reveal an unavoidable dynamic at the festival, Redford said. While the Sundance Institute has its aims for the festival, movie studios are there to buy films. The festival's ability to reconcile those aims is sometimes limited.
"We're not a control mechanism," Redford said.
Sundance's shifting filmmaker demographics are among the ways the festival can enact change, according to Redford. The Weinstein allegations, and others like them, he said, will hopefully be just "a moment in time" that the festival and industry moves past.
“I think the role for women, to be able to step forward and exercise their voices more and more, is a really wonderful thing,” Redford said. “And I think the role for men right now would be to listen.”
“The strength in this is knowing that you’re not alone … that you have a common bond around storytelling as a power to change the world," Cooper added. "And I think that’s what we do here.”
Sexual misconduct in Hollywood is more than a few individual men, Putnam said, explaining that it’s about the underlying systems of power, which are amplified in the film industry.
Sundance organizers, she said, have put resources toward examining those power structures, hoping to discover the specific junctures where female and minority filmmakers get held back. According to their research, Putnam said, it isn’t always about securing a first film, but a second or third. The Sundance Institute wants to create more ongoing support for such filmmakers, rather than just a first opportunity.
“What I’ve noticed in the wake of this movement … is something really exciting,” she said. “A really different energy happening. I think we see that there’s a receptivity, there’s a new listening. This isn’t a new conversation for us, but it’s a new moment. And we’re not going to go backward from here.”
Thursday's panel discussion and press conference kicked off 10 days of film screenings, panel discussions and industry events for the thousands of people who flock to Park City, Salt Lake City and the Sundance Resort for the festival.
While this year's festival will be familiar to previous Sundance attendees, organizers have a few new elements this year — notably, a more egalitarian opening night, a new Park City theater and increased safeguards against sexual misconduct.
The panel outlined a few of these changes, which include a newly instituted code of conduct for all festival attendees, as well as a 24-hour hotline to the Utah Attorney General's Office that attendees can call to report misconduct.
The new code of conduct says Sundance is committed to allowing attendees an experience “free of harassment, discrimination and threatening or disrespectful behavior.” It also says that the festival reserves the right to revoke credentials or access to festival events to “those that engage in such conduct.”
Women directed 37 percent of this year’s feature films and 51 percent of the shorts, according to a Sundance Institute news release. Additional statistics on this year’s submissions, which tallied more than 13,000 pieces, show an increasingly international festival: There were more International Features submissions (2,102) than U.S. Features submissions (1,799), and more International Documentary submissions (895) than U.S. Documentary submissions (740). This year’s feature-length offerings showcase work from 29 countries.
Putnam acknowledged there is still progress to be made, but said the festival’s changing demographics reflect the internal conversations happening at the Sundance Institute.
This year’s opening night looked different than in previous years. Instead of premiering one or two films, Sundance screened seven different films and one short film program at various locations throughout Park City. The festival is also debuting a new Park City film venue, the Ray, which the Institute converted from an old Sports Authority store. This venue, Cooper said, has state of the art sound and will also showcase some of Sundance’s virtual reality offerings.2 comments on this story
Cooper also mentioned Sundance’s new Indie Episodic program, which showcases bold stories told in multiple installments.
This year’s films indicate a greater focus on the experiences of blacks in America, according to Cooper, who oversees the festival’s programming. Since films take a few years to get made, Cooper said this year’s film slate likely reflects cultural issues sparked by the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2016.
“But you do watch the movies different,” he said. “There’s a relevance that happens in movies that you watch one way before, and now they have a different feeling.”