It’s hard to believe that Utah, one of the most conservative states in the US, could have become the incubator of modern independent cinema. But remarkably, it has – through the efforts of an avowed liberal, Robert Redford and his Sundance Film Festival. The event takes place each January in the winter ski resort of Park City, and its opening this Thursday will mark its 30th anniversary.

Over three decades Redford and his disciples have developed his vision for supporting independent filmmakers. As a brand it’s worked very effectively: today Sundance is synonymous the world over for the best in independent cinema.

But when the festival got underway 30 years ago the concept of an independent film wasn’t fully defined – and indie filmmakers often operated in isolation, fending for themselves as they tried to get their work into cinemas.

As John Cooper, the festival’s present director, recalls, Sundance found it could cater to a need. He says: “There were always filmmakers working outside the studio system but they didn’t really have a central place. So we started realising that there had to be this place to garner attention and to gather a community.”

Veteran US documentary-maker Julia Reichert was at Sundance during its formative years and what she remembers was the camaraderie. “One thing it really offered in the early days was almost like a family gathering of independent filmmakers. You’d have time to have dinner with cinematographers, producers, production designers, other documentarians.”

Declaration of independence

In its first years the festival remained low-key, although it had sufficient muscle to focus the attention of the audience and the media on independent cinema. But in 1989 Sundance was transformed when director Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape was screened at the festival.

This low-budget tangled relationship drama starring Andie MacDowell and James Spader won great critical acclaim. More significantly it went into the marketplace where it was bought by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein – and ended up making enough money to prove very convincingly that independent cinema could be a good financial investment.

Looking back at Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Sundance’s director of programming Trevor Roth says,  “[it] really launched Sundance as the discovery festival for distributors - and that really helped the American independent film industry grow up.”

The triumph of Soderbergh’s film also helped bring the term ‘independent film’ into circulation.  As filmmaker Julia Reichert recalls: “Independent film started being mentioned by reviewers, by the educated general public.”And it made Sundance a much more desirable showcase for both independent filmmakers, and the actors in their films, because Hollywood was now focusing its attention on the festival. “It turned Sundance into a minor-league audition space that was watched very, very closely by agents and people in the studios,” says film critic David D’Arcy who’s been attending Sundance for almost 25 years.

Big breaks

The festival has helped to launch many careers. David O Russell, Darren Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino are just a few of the many directors who got their first big break here. But the sobering reality is that for nearly all the filmmakers who make it to Park City, only a minority emerge each year with viable distribution deals. Few Sundance films make money. Despite that reality, legions of young filmmakers view Sundance as the place which holds the promise of a great future as a director. According to D’Arcy they are chasing a dream that just won’t materialise. He says, “Sundance, with the few bona fide successes that came out of nowhere, created the myth of independent cinema, that you could take an idea, lots of hard work and create something that will reach the multitudes and the marketplace. Obviously we’re talking about the absolute exceptions.”

D’Arcy is using commercial success as a yardstick. It could be argued that an independent film, especially a documentary, can often bring returns that can’t be measured in box office dollars.

That view is shared by the festival’s director, Cooper. He says: “We’re not always looking at just the numbers, we’re looking at how a film can change maybe policy out in the world or change people’s views. It’s how we think at Sundance.”

The festival organisers are also helping filmmakers self-distribute their films. “There are pre-arranged deals with digital platforms,” says Roth, the director of programming. “We [also] help [the filmmakers] with their marketing strategies.” In addition, new online opportunities are increasing the possibilities for distribution.

Although Sundance enjoys a global profile its uniqueness has been diluted because there are now many other film festivals where there’s a significant focus on independent cinema. Some in the industry think Sundance should display more creative zeal in developing its brand if it’s not to lose its primacy in the world of independent cinema.

“There are other organisations that are eating Sundance’s lunch,” maintains New York-based publicist John Murphy, who has represented some 100 films at the festival. “Other festivals started out using the Sundance model but then took it to the next level. Other organisations have really run with the ball that Sundance started years ago.” 

But what the Sundance Film Festival has going for it is that it’s more than just a festival. It’s an offshoot of the Sundance Institute – an umbrella organisation that includes workshops for directors and screenwriters that have a long history of nurturing filmmakers. Among the recent beneficiaries is British director Sally El Hosaini who maintains her recent well-received London drama My Brother the Devil would have been impossible to make without its help. “My career would not be where it is today if it weren’t for the support the Sundance Institute showed me,” she notes. She benefitted from both the screenwriters’ and directors’ labs - and received financial support - well before her film premiered at the festival two years ago.

Of course, there are those who think the festival has become a victim of its own international success. As Toby Miller, author of Global Hollywood 2, puts it: “It’s become so much part of the calendar and the landscape, it’s become institutionalised. It’s lost its edginess. It doesn’t have that outsider status anymore.”

While that may be true, Sundance still represents a realm of film industry activity that is relatively separate from Hollywood, although less so nowadays than at the very beginning. And with Hollywood becoming increasingly controlled by corporate dictates, the opportunities for a director’s personal vision to reach the screen are becoming rarer.

But 30 years after its founding, the Sundance Film Festival is able to showcase a vast array of very personal films from a diverse group of filmmakers for whom passion and artistry are defining characteristics. To many that’s what makes Sundance so refreshing and so unique.

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