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A Powder Keg of Talent
by Karen Pecota

"I want to get this thing started because I feel like am sitting on a powder keg of talent that needs to explode." ~ John Cooper, Sundance Film Festival Director

The 2013 Sundance Film Festival opens with the annual press conference with Sundance Institute founder and president, Robert Redford. His two top comrades Keri Putnam, Executive director of the Sundance Institute and John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival join him in the official celebration ceremony to open the festival. Every year there is a surprise element to the annual meeting and this year is no different.

This year the surprise element comes in the form of a person. The state is set for the opening gig and one sees four empty brown leather chairs on the platform. Stacks of the festival catalogs sit on the floor and the pretty green Brita (a festival sponsor) water bottles rest on the end tables. Expected are the three festival gurus but who will be joining them? Who would be sitting in the fourth chair?

The press trickle into the theater at least two hours before the official start time so chit-chat and speculation of the person to sit in the fourth chair is a given. I was happy to reconnect with two colleagues I met from the year previous in attendance. We sat together and got caught-up on the happenings of our last year.

The press conference begins. The presence of festival's famed three amigos (Redford, Putnam, Copper) appear on stage. Always an exciting moment. While the photographers click away the fourth man introduces himself as the one who will moderate the discussion--Sean P. Means, movie critic with The Salt Lake Tribune. The surprise element is announced. A great idea to have a moderator. This helps to guide the discussion and keep the time focused.

"It's the first day of festival and it feels like we are taxying out of the gate onto the runway," Sean says and directs his first question to all three of the festival gurus. "What are you most excited about, at this moment, leading up the screenings of the festival?"

Robert Redford begins and shares that for him it comes down to a simple word called change. He says, "Since change is inevitable, I see it develop in three ways. Some people fight it or are afraid of it, so they resist change; some people accept it and roll along with it; and then there are others who see change in a positive way and embrace it."

Redford continues, "These people not only go with it but take advantage of it and use it. I suspect that is where I am, as is Sundance. When you think about art, in this case film, it is an agent for change."

Redford is clear to point out that the festival is diverse. It presents a wide range of content and gives the audience a choice. A rarity in the mainstream market place for film. He feels that as change comes they (the Institute and festival) have chosen to flow with change, accommodated change, and use it. His example is the installations for The New Frontier. He notes, "When high technology began to play a bigger role in film, we created a venue where high technology and artists came together share their work in the installations. We started promoting the online, shorts, documentaries (which are a big deal for me) before they hit the level they are right now." He continues his train of thought, "We've watched as things happen in the universe around us. We adapt with the content we provide. The choice is always the audiences. As long as we go forward and adapt to change, we keep in touch with our original purpose--to support and develop new voices to be seen and heard. And, do whatever we can to promote them. This makes me very proud."

Keri Putnam voices her anticipation for the festival, "It's exciting for me to see everybody arrive and the production of the event really work." She continues, "The movies are the most exciting and seeing the artists in attendance. It is a truly a festival of discovery as the Institute has always been." On a broader level, Putnam points out a few stats that support her enthusiasm.  "I want to point out how diverse the slate is for film and content. We have films from 32 different countries. Out of 113 films we have 51 first time filmmakers. The opportunity to introduce these artists is thrilling. And, to note that twenty-two  of the films at the festival have come through our labs or granting programs at Sundance Institute." The Institute supports 400 artists with critical creative support and awards $2 million annually allowing a vibrant film community to flourish from proper training.

John Cooper is privy to what the audiences will see. In anticipation he feels that what is exciting is the quality of work the festival will showcase. He says, "It is top notch." Cooper likes the idea that the established filmmakers at Sundance will mix with the first-time filmmakers. He notes, "There is a magic in that connection." Mostly because there is an opportunity to become a group force and over time a powerful voice can emerge.

Cooper adds, "I'm really excited about the music in the festival. The music in the films is a direct tie-in to independent filmmaking." The festival incorporates the making of music from the original artist. Cooper explains that sharing the experience with the festival partners KCRW, ASCP and BMI as well as with the attendees to have live music on the mountain is a stellar experience. He shares with anticipation, "I want this thing (the festival) to get started because I feel like am sitting on a powder keg of talent that needs to explode."

Mr. Means, the moderator, did his job--to keep the dialogue moving naturally so there was never a dull moment. The surprise element to have a moderator was a great idea. The Sundance Institute and Film Festival gatekeepers of great ideas found a way to share their thoughts at the first presentation on the festival’s opening day.

The Sundance Film Festival story told by Redford himself is weaved into dialogue with the press. A story I never tire of his sharing. The opportunity Redford, Putnam and Cooper have to address current cultural conflicts arise from the festival buzz words: change, diversity, commercialism and the ever grown technology. Their perspective about how film influences and connects is insightful as they respond to comments such as these: The moving picture is a showcase for a changing society of social mores, i.e., early 60s sex was related to romance and today sex comes in all different packages. And answer questions similar to this: Set on location in the conservative state of Utah what affect does thematic diversity have in film? How does this work? Or, Commercialism, how does it hurt or further independent projects? Or, In relationship to so much gun violence in the U.S., do guns sell film tickets? Discussions come and go each year but the main message of Redford never changes. And, every year we drink in his words of encouragement:

"Every great film starts with an idea, and it is a testament to artists that they continually find new ideas, new stories and points of view and new ways of sharing them, year after year. We look forward to hearing from these artists not just through their words and images on-screen but also through the dialogue they create with audiences at our Festival and beyond." ~ Robert Redford, Founder & President of the Sundance Institute