What is the wave of change at this year’s festival?
Probably the use of digital cameras, which began about three years ago so we’ve seen it coming. This year, we have 23 premiere films that were shot digitally. And digital technology is obviously the biggest change that has hit filmmaking in years — and will create many new opportunities for telling stories. But we’re far enough ahead of the curve that we can actually use the festival as a sort of cultural anthropological indicator to see what’s happening. Look what emerged this year, all women filmmakers, or all black filmmakers, or all gay and lesbian filmmakers — we don’t know going in necessarily, but when it’s over we can study the trends. Three weeks after each festival we now have a two-day post-mortem when we take a really hard look to see how we can improve things. This year, what you’re going to see is that we will carry on with our pledge to present more experimental films, while running the risk of boring or displeasing some people, but they’re there for people who do like them. And when you hit with them, you hit big and find wonderfully exciting work.
Do you have a final thought for the filmmakers whose films didn’t get into Sundance this year?
Don’t give them my number! Or my address! Look, nobody likes to disappoint people, the business is too hard as it is. It really breaks our heart to have to turn people away, but we have limited facilities and can only screen so many films. All I can say is don’t give up. Just because a film doesn’t get into Sundance doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. I’m a filmmaker too and I know what it takes to get a film finished. I also started as an actor, and I know what it’s like to go to auditions, not get the part and wonder if you ever will get a part. I know rejection.
What do you think about Sundance becoming a brand name?
I feel good about the fact that it was earned. It came through evolution from a revolutionary attitude, which is the best way for a brand to develop. Would I would not have liked, done or supported is starting with an idea for a brand and then trying to make it happen. The word “brand” never entered anybody’s head. We just had an idea, wanted to try it — there was no guarantee that it would work — and one thing led to another over 15 years, including the festival, the Labs, the Sundance Channel, and those successes slowly began to create this idea that Sundance was a place that offered opportunity. And that became a brand, because we were succeeding with our mission. But Sundance was never planned to become a brand — I just didn’t have another name to use. I have mixed feelings about logos and brands anyways, which is why you don’t see Sundance logos all over the place like Disney or Nike. I’m against that.
The film market aspect of the festival has arisen without much direct help from the Institute, but do you see that it will take a role in that at some point?
Absolutely, you run into danger with non-profit companies because you can become an elitist real fast. That’s something we don’t want. You can become elitist about issues of money and what you have to dirty your hands with, but the fact is that we’re meant to be in the streets and of the streets. We want to be a part of the marketplace. Another part of this _ and part of the change we discussed before — is that we’re pushing very aggressively to take our Labs, our process and the festival onto the international scene. We’re now bringing international projects to the Labs this June. As this goes on, you’re going to see some difference in the marketplace. Now, going back to the Sundance brand, I’m very happy that when you put our name out there and people get excited about it. They get excited because they know it means that they’re going to get a chance in filmmaking.
Is Sundance’s exportation of the indie-film mindset to other countries also an opportunity for other national cinemas to survive global Hollywoodization?
Yes, by importing and exporting films. But the only way we can do that is to go over there physically and build our own infrastructure and facilities to do it with, because otherwise we’re facing a pretty tight collusion that’s been going on for about 50 years. The relationship between distributors and exhibitors throughout the world is a pretty tough nut to crack. So you have to do it an alternative way that doesn’t threaten what’s there, but still creates opportunity. Look, it’s taken me 20-some-odd years to build what I’ve got here.
Can you give me an example of how you’ve used your stature in Hollywood as a bully pulpit to get people to help with the Institute?
In the early years, I did put in a pretty heavy call using myself to get my colleagues to come up and work for nothing. We didn’t have any money and it was very hard to raise money for the Lab. People asked, “What the hell are we going to give you money for, we’ve heard what you make on a film.” So I head to prey upon the good will of my friends, telling them to remember what it was like when they got started. I told them that this was an opportunity for them to give something back. And, fortunately, there was enough good will. But now, I don’t really have to make those calls because Sundance has proven itself and it has become an attractive proposition of its own. I still raise money for the Labs, program it and participate in it, because what would be the fun for me if I just became a statesman? I don’t want to be a statesman for independent film because I’m a filmmaker myself! The joy for me is being a part of it all — by going through the Lab with my ideas and taking my lumps just like everybody else. And because these new filmmakers are right there on the edge of technology, new ideas and this age we live in, and if I’m right there to go with them, you learn things. And that’s what I really get out of all of this in exchange for continuing with my participation. I’m pretty involved with all aspects of it, but I stay behind the scenes for the most part because it doesn’t need me anymore. It did in the early years, but now the name itself carries its own strength, which is what I’d hoped for.
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