PARK CITY — The Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday with just a brief appearance by its founder and president, Robert Redford.
“I think we’re at a point where I can move on to a different place,” Redford told the audience, yielding time at a press conference to those who oversee the festival's programming.
“Because the thing I’ve missed over the years is being able to spend time with the films and the filmmakers, and to see their work and enjoy their work, and be part of their community.”
In Redford’s absence, the conversation turned to how the festival program is chosen, how this year’s films capture both the festival’s past and its future, and how other changes reflect this balancing act.
Among Sundance’s newest changes is Kim Yutani, who recently took over as director of programming. She was joined onstage by Festival Director John Cooper, as well as senior programmers Caroline Libresco, David Courier, John Nein and Shari Frilot.
“I think of them all as kind of superheroes from the 'Avengers' series,” Cooper said.
The process of selecting films hasn’t changed much — Cooper described it as continual arguing. “But every year when we do this, we’re doing it in a new world,” he said. “The world changes around us, and it has to be contextualized almost.
“But it’s amazing, the different points of view that we have in that room,” he continued. “And that’s what is the secret sauce for me.”
“I think that when we encounter something new, we recognize it right away,” Yutani added.
In keeping with the festival’s trajectory, total film submissions continued an upward trend this year. A record 14,259 total films were submitted, including 4,018 feature-length films. More than half of the feature-length submissions are from outside the U.S.
This year’s Sundance films include directors from 33 countries and 45 first-time filmmakers. The festival’s four competition categories (U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Documentary, World Cinema Dramatic, World Cinema Documentary) feature 61 directors, 42 percent of which are women, 39 percent are people of color, and 23 percent are LGBTQ.
According to Libresco, 47 percent of all directors in this year’s festival are women.
In her opening remarks, Keri Putnam mentioned how the Sundance Institute realized the festival also needed more diverse representation among the credentialed press and industry attendees — which she described as a “blind spot.” The artists, she said, were “premiering their work to mostly white male critics. This lack of inclusion has real world implications to sales, distribution and opportunity.
“Diversity isn’t just about who’s making the films, it’s about how they enter the world,” she said.
The institute, Putnam explained, reshaped its accreditation process, and 63 percent of this year’s credentialed press is from traditionally underrepresented groups.
Other changes this year include a whole new building dedicated to Sundance’s interactive New Frontier program, as well as a three-day Sundance Institute Talent Forum that connects more than 100 Sundance Institute fellows with industry professionals to advance their film projects.
For all the changes, Sundance is still rooted in tradition — namely with its commitment to documentaries, which comprise half of the festival’s programming.
“It always came from Robert Redford, too,” explained Cooper, who’s been with Sundance for almost 30 years. “At the very beginning, he goes, ‘We’re going to do a festival that is equal documentary and fiction.’ He’s the one that laid that groundwork for us.”
Thursday’s conference came on the heels of the 2019 Academy Award nominations, which were announced Tuesday. Of the five films nominated for best documentary feature, four premiered at last year’s festival. And the two big snubs in that category — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “Three Identical Strangers” — were also at Sundance last year.
“Now that’s a hard act to follow this year, but we have an extraordinary slate (this year), so who knows,” Courier said.
“An incredible renaissance is happening in documentary filmmaking,” he continued. “We have been out in front of that, I think, for a long time, because Sundance is unique. We’re incredibly fortunate, we get all the best documentary films in the films — but that fortunateness comes from choices we’ve made.”
That commitment to documentaries is indicated in the 2019 festival’s seven opening night premieres, which include four documentaries.8 comments on this story
The festival will also maintain its robust presence in Salt Lake City this year. Five different downtown venues — Broadway Centre Cinemas, Tower Theatre, Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City Library and the Rose Wagner Center — will host screenings Friday through Feb. 3.
Putnam mentioned how the media’s changing landscape often has “an eye on views and clicks, rather than depth and risk.” Sundance, she said, will hopefully buck the trend.
“The commercial media environment devalues independent media, and we’re here to revalue it,” she said. “We feel the urgency of coming together in person, showing up with curious, open minds.”