Sundance Festival Celebrates 30 Years Of Independence

Jan 18, 2014
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Way back in 1985 when I was hosting WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, I found myself interviewing Robert Redford about a new film festival sponsored by the Sundance Institute. Redford was enthusiastic about his film festival, showcasing independent film. He described it as far from Hollywood.

ROBERT REDFORD: It's free from the meter ticking of money and people in suits walking around looking at watches.

NEARY: I told Redford that some people had accused him of naivety when he started the festival, but he was optimistic.

REDFORD: I think a little idealism is not wrong. And we'll just see what happens. If it works, it works.

NEARY: It's probably safe to say it worked. But there are a few more people in suits walking around that ski resort these days. They've got checkbooks with them too. The Sundance Film Festival is celebrating its 30th year this week. To hear more about the history of the festival, we called Eric Kohn, the chief film critic for Indiewire. He's attending the festival in Park City, Utah this year, and when he told us when Sundance started, there really was no such thing as indie film culture.

ERIC KOHN: What Sundance did, at least for the United States, was mobilize an independent film community and eventually create a marketplace. So it now is an alternative, sort of way of making movies outside of Hollywood that's still a viable both to have a career and to remain, in various different ways, creatively autonomous.

NEARY: So, has it changed from its beginnings? I mean, has it changed from a place where lesser known actors and directors could come and sort of experiment on independent films to one where sort of big budget actors are now starring in lower budget movies but with a different kind of feel to it?

KOHN: I think the cliché of Sundance is that it's sold out. It's the most popular, well-known festival in America, maybe in the world, and so it's an easy target. And it's very easy to single out, especially the films here that do have bigger names to say that, you know, look, it's not really independent when you have famous people.

The reality is some of those movies are actually quite good and some famous people want to be involved in movies that aren't sort of bound to Hollywood in that very restrictive way. So, that's one part of the answer to your question.

The other thing to keep in mind is that this was not a marketplace that existed 30 years ago, now that there are more ways to make independent films and there's a viable marketplace for them. There's all kinds of independent films being made but it's a much bigger program for that. There's nearly 100 world premieres here. I look at sections at this festival that don't have any famous people in them, and that's really where I see independent films thriving. It just doesn't grab headlines in the same way.

NEARY: Do you know was there sort of a moment over the last 30 years when Sundance went from being a kind of little-known venue for little-known films to being what it is today? When it made that transition, was there one film that made it, was there a moment?

KOHN: When Steven Soderbergh's feature film - his first feature film - "Sex, Lies and Videotape" premiered here. It was this breakout success story that ended up actually doing some good commercial business. So, within the next couple of years, you had filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino with "Reservoir Dogs" and Richard Linklater with "Slackers" show up here out of nowhere and then all of the sudden have these major careers because people were coming out and discovering them and putting down money to help them sort of find their way.

NEARY: Had anybody heard of Soderbergh, for instance, before that film at Sundance?

KOHN: Absolutely not. He was, you know, a 26-year-old film school graduate just sort of interested in making movies the way he wanted to make them. So, it really did put the festival on the map and at this point is sort of legendary. And I think a lot of filmmakers now look to Sundance as this high-water mark of how you can get discovered. And the reality is it does happen. Every year that I come to this festival, I always find somebody who I'd never heard of before, never would have had a reason to hear of before, and they do something that shows that clearly they have a vision and this willingness to work outside of any kind of conventions for what you would expect a movie to be. And, you know, the truth is if it's a good movie, there is a way to make it commercial. And that's what keeps people coming back here on the industry side to discover people, to see things you've never seen before and realize that the world wants to see that too.

NEARY: Eric Kohn is the chief film critic for Indiewire. Eric, thanks so much for being with us.

KOHN: Pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.