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Back to Our Roots
by Karen Pecota

The Sundance Film Festival is now over a quarter-of-a-century old. New people are stepping up to the plate to fill big shoes vacated by former festival gurus who worked hard to make the first twenty-five years of the festival successful. Now what? What changes will be implemented to support a successful future? I wondered if the 2010 Sundance opening press conference (PC) would incorporate lessons learned and a projection for a hopeful future in a struggling U.S. economy.

At the designated hour, the president and founder of the Sundance Institute, Robert Redford, and the newly appointed Sundance Festival Director, John Copper, entered the Egyptian Theater stage (opening PC venue) to face bright lights, clicking camera shutters and rounds of applause from people of the press.

Robert Redford’s stage presence eloquently set the tone for a personal dialogue with the press and an easy assimilation of information. His casual demeanor and friendly words of welcome put the whole room at ease. I never tire of Redford’s command performance on this stage because it’s with sincerity that he invites the audience into his world. A world worth taking notice!

His eyes slowly scan the crowd while his voice commands attention with the words, “Hi, Everybody!” and continues, “There is a poem that I have always been very fond of by T.S. Eliot. It begins with ‘Let us not cease with explorations…’ and ends with …’that we may return to the place where we first started but see it as if for the first time.’, and that pretty much defines our festival for this year…we’re going back to our roots…where fresh new ideas were fostered and fresh new voices were heard.” The audience pondered his statement while Redford candidly explained what lies behind the heart of the 2010 festival and going back to its roots. He commended the festival’s 1,600 volunteers who were in place and ready to serve and announced that the festival is still run on a shoestring. Redford then graciously opened the floor for a question and answer (Q & A) conversation event that’s always a delight for the press. The fascinating 90-minute segment seemed to fly by in a matter of minutes.

One colleague asks, “How is it possible to go back to the roots after a successful twenty-five-year existence?” Redford references his T.S. Eliot quote above and explains that in the early days he felt strongly about the possibilities of innovation. What lay before Redford and his cohorts, years ago, was a blank page a book open to discovery and challenges. Their idea for a film festival to develop was new and innovative it involved risk, as was their mission to create a vehicle for filmmakers to have opportunities to make film, to promote them and to create an environment where people could see fresh creative work. Redford noted, “For the festival to survive or succeed, back in the day, I knew it might not have a very long prism, thus the organizers had to evaluate their immediate conflicts which were: How important would money become? How conservative would things go? Are people going to be afraid of taking a chance by being involved in an Indie film vs. Mainstream that might go contrary to their success?” The assumption was that they might not last more than ten years but if it did they would keep going.

Redford reflects more recently on the past few years feeling like their efforts may had been sliding backwards or flat-lining. He felt that they needed a fresh new approach and new voices. He wondered what could the solution look like? Pondering such a question forced him to go back to the roots where there used to be a great separation between mainstream films and Indie films. Redford’s never changing mission statement continues to be all about creating a vehicle of opportunity where creative works can be seen. In addition, the need to cast vision to future generations is a key part to stay relevant. A change in personnel is critical to keeping new ideas and new voices connected to new generations. Goeff Gilmore entered the festival in the ‘90s and did an amazing job with his skill set: archival background expert from UCLA and he had a sixth sense for new blood. John Cooper entered the festival scene under Gilmore many years ago but today slides into the festival directorship being able to have incredible freedom to work in his expertise in technology. Both used their fabulous personal skills to connect to new filmmakers as well as to those seasoned, helping them to remain on the cutting edge.

To this day, Redford takes the festival venue very seriously and is aware of the rapid changes in the film industry, especially with technology. He continues to ask the same questions today as in the beginning: How are we doing in the market place? Are we staying out in front of things? Are we sliding back? Are we afraid to take the chance we once took? What are today’s new and fresh ideas? Redford knows that if they cease to create opportunities, then they will be the first to pull the plug.

One of the festival’s greatest accomplishments has been to create and stabilize an intimate filmmaker’s community. Although the festival goals have remained intact, at times it’s been clouded by other forces i.e., Ambush whackers, the housing market and depressed economy, celebrities hanging out their own shingle to promote themselves as commercial marketing from various companies follow suit. The festival stays clear of these connections because its goal is to promote the filmmaker. Redford says, “One good thing about our tanking economy is that it has opened up space for us to evaluate and see who we really are. We seriously run the festival on a shoestring. We are a non-profit and do not want to lose that status. We are focused on the filmmaker. We see that the people who have been hanging on to the festival coat tales (mentioned above) aren’t coming back. They aren’t making enough money due to the tanking economy. Slowly the festival is going back to what is/was meant to be.” Redford and Cooper want the filmmakers in attendance and in the spotlight. They desire for their work to get exposure, to see their work cross-over to wider audiences, and to give them the chance to seize the opportunities available.

Since the early ‘90s the audiences have attended the festival from all over the world. Redford took a look at what was happening and noticed three things taking place: 1) It wasn’t only a one-way street for filmmakers, 2) The venue was open for filmmakers, musicians, and much more, i.e., the press who love to promote filmmakers, 3) It was for audiences to see films they’d not be able to see anywhere else and possibly never again. Redford’s “Ah-ha” moment allowed him to see a bigger picture to his efforts. It held true to the festival goals advocating the filmmaker. His discovery is what pleases Redford but the ultimate pleasure is when people share their words of gratitude to him and say “thank you” for creating an environment to learn, mature and grow. The words “thank you” for changing my life, for giving me the chance that I would not normally have are the words that mean everything to Redford and he says, “There is no greater joy… there is no greater reward …than to hear words of appreciation for a job well done.”