Robert Redford reflects on 30 years of Sundance
- 20 January 2014
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Thirty years ago, movie star Robert Redford decided to create a film festival to promote America's fledgling independent film industry. " But I didn't want to do it in New York or LA," he says. "I said, let's put it in Utah, let's make it hard to get to. Let's make it weird."
Three decades on, the Sundance Film Festival at Park City in Utah is showing indie movies from 37 different countries and is bringing in about $375m (£228m) to the local economy.
But although the event was responsible for "discovering" Oscar nominees such as Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter's Bone - which also launched Jennifer Lawrence's career - Redford admits that, in 2014, independent cinema is, as he puts it, "still at the mercy of the distributors".
"Hollywood is a business and it's really good at it," he says. "But if you're looking at how films get nominated for Oscars for example, it's all about the campaign that gets run.
"A lot of independent films - and I'd include my own latest film, All Is Lost in there - don't have the funding for that."
Although Academy Award winners have come from the independent sector - including British film The King's Speech - this year, Gravity and American Hustle, the leading contenders, are both studio films.
With low-budget movies squeezed by shorter theatrical releases and the advent of on demand and streaming services like Netflix, where does Redford see the business heading?
"I don't see Sundance's business as being business," Redford replied. "We are nothing to do with the box office, we are a non-profit organisation.
"We started Sundance as a place to come and develop new artists, with the ambition of creating a community and giving them a platform for their work. I don't think our mission has changed at all.
"Thirty years ago, these people had nowhere to go. Now I'm very proud that actually, the directors of Gravity and American Hustle, Alfonso Cuaron and David O Russell, actually came up through Sundance, and now they work in the mainstream.
"I think independent films are seen by a bigger audience these days, and we do know that changing the platform of distribution is inevitable, and we will ride that wave.
"But look at something like Kickstarter - that is an innovation which is giving new life to independent cinema."
One Kickstarter-funded film screening at Sundance is Wish I Was Here, the first film Zach Braff has made since 2004's Garden State.
As well as Braff, the festival boasts its usual stellar list of acting talent who brave the snows of Park City, including Kristen Stewart, playing a Guantanamo Bay guard in Camp X-Ray, the debut feature film by graphic designer Peter Sattler.
A better experience
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon bring comedy with Michael Winterbottom's The Trip To Italy, while Keira Knightley has already received rave reviews for her part in Laggies, a coming of age 20-something comedy directed by Lynn Shelton, who set it in her hometown of Seattle.
"Doing independent cinema is often a better experience than doing studio films," explains Knightley.
"There are so many retakes, and waiting to set up shots in blockbusters, that you can lose the momentum, particularly if you have to act against a green screen.
"In a low-budget film, you have to get it right and it's like being in the theatre - you've only got one chance.
"Also, on Laggies, I got to live on a houseboat in Seattle and learn to skateboard a little, like my character. The only problem was they had no health and safety budget, so they'd hardly let me use it."
While the actors' pay in independent cinema is often so low that only established stars can take the roles, Sundance has, nevertheless, launched new stars every year - from Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone to Felicity Jones in Like Crazy.
However, the festival's biggest success remains its documentary programme, one of the first to be established at an event like this.
Four out of the five Oscar nominees in this year's documentary category debuted at Sundance in 2013.
This year, the event is screening films on subjects as diverse as former US presidential candidate Mitt Romney, film critic Roger Ebert and Star Trek icon George Takei, as well as real-life thrillers like The Green Prince - the true story of the friendship that formed between a Hamas informer and his Israeli handler.
"I think Sundance has been a game-changer for the documentary," remarks John Battsek, the British producer behind The Green Prince and last year's Oscar winner, Searching for Sugarman.
"I think it's helped elevate the documentary to the same status as a feature film, and shown it can perform just as well in cinemas.
"Now the challenge is to continue making documentaries that have the same values and standards as a feature."
While 56 films compete across the different categories at Sundance, the reality is that only a handful will receive a theatrical release.
Redford is adamant though, that the festival has a winning formula:
"We are who we are and we'll stay who we are," he says. "And if I had a message for other festivals who want to do the same thing, I guess it would be 'don't even try.'"
The Sundance Film Festival runs until January 26, 2014