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Sundance Festival Celebrates 25 Years of Independent Film

  • Sheri Quinn

This year the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah is celebrating its 25th anniversary as one of the world's premier showcases for new, independently produced films.

Actor Robert Redford launched the Sundance Film Festival in 1985 to promote new filmmakers and low-budget films and to help keep independent cinema alive. Redford says festival attendance in the first year was just 150 people. Today, the festival is averaging 65,000 attendees each year.

"I didn't imagine it would have quite the impact that it's had. In the earlier years, there was nobody from Hollywood that came. I got no support from my industry financially," Redford says. "People were doubtful that it could succeed because it's not commercial, and it's in the middle of winter up in 'Mormon country.'

"And I said, 'None of that's the point. The point of the festival is to be diverse, and maybe diversity will be commercial.'"

Hollywood begins to take notice

Hollywood seems to have caught up with Redford's vision: Three documentaries and one theatrical film from the 2008 festival received Academy Award nominations this year. Redford says Sundance has often been a financial boon to Hollywood, since some small-budget, independent films coming out of the festival have earned good money at the box office. Hit movies such as Little Miss Sunshine and the documentary March of the Penguins are the latest "indie" projects that premiered at Sundance and hit the jackpot commercially. But Redford believes that's all changed now.

"They [the big movie studios] are not going to take as many chances with the offbeat films that go more into the indie area," he says. "And also, the capital isn't coming so much from the studios anymore to finance films; it's coming from outside. So in that sense, the studio system has changed drastically."

Despite the difficult U.S. economic situation, the festival sold out this year, earning several hundred thousand dollars more in ticket sales than it did last year.

Diverse films from 21 countries

Redford says Sundance can keep up with changes and setbacks in the film industry by staying smaller and more selective than other major film festivals such as Cannes and Toronto - each showcasing more than 300 films.

"There will be a lot of stuff in the festival that people won't like. But the good thing is they have a choice," Redford says. "We don't select based on one theme or another. We select based on how original and different a film is. It's up to the audience to make something of it."

This year's Sundance Festival features films from 21 countries. Notable among the 118 feature-length movies - nearly half of which are the work of first-time filmmakers - is the Mexican-American drama, Sin Nombre, a political thriller set in a Mexican border town, and a British documentary called An Education, a coming-of-age story about a 16-year-old girl.

According to senior Sundance programmer Caroline Libresco, an unexpected factor influencing the film selection process this year was the election of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama.

"I think the outcome of the election did temper how we programmed the festival," she says. "We are still showing many very serious documentaries and films. Had Obama not won, perhaps we would have been in a different mindset when we made selections."

Globalization affects filmmakers' approach to storytelling

The kinds of films being submitted from around the world also are changing.

"I would say that one of the major things we are dealing with in this year's festival is what I call the effects of globalization," says festival Director Geoff Gilmore. "When filmmakers want to make a documentary about a story, they don't think about just how it affects the U.S.; they think about how it affects the world.

"The effect of globalization, the internationalization of stories is a major impact, and that's really clear this year, but there's a real diversity in terms of the range of different kinds of work."

Gilmore said it's hard to summarize the festival, but he has noticed themes emerging this year that he hasn't seen in a quarter century of Sundance festivals.

"I can say we are in a period in which I look at filmmakers as activists. And [there is] a whole new generation making films about romance and relationships that I have not seen before. So if you look at the range, you notice this is a less cerebral festival than we've sometimes had. This is more a festival about how it makes you feel."

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