A Need-to-Know Basis: History of the Sundance Film Festival

I’m starting a new series of stories and articles, ones that have a particular focus and energy towards either history or information, particularly in sports and entertainment. They talk about things being talked about only in “need-to-know” bases. I have decided to take some of the important people, events, and outlets that have made these things important. These are things you need to know, and I’m gonna tell you. My first one is going to be about the Sundance Film Festival.

Intro to Sundance

For much of the year, when you think of Park City in Utah you are usually thinking about great slopes, soft snow, and luxurious spas. However, for a couple of weeks in January, the peaceful getaway that is Park City is transformed into a mecca of indy filmmakers and the world’s biggest stars. The movers and shakers get away from the sun and the lights of Los Angeles, New York, and everywhere else in the United States and they head out to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival. Examine the history, from the mythological start of the festival to it’s meteoric rise into the elite of the film world, and the tradition that comes along with Sundance.

It Begins With an Idea

Back in the late 70’s, there were two major individual leaders who led the charge to bring the Sundance Film Festival to life. The corporate side was handled by a man who held the title of Utah Film Commissioner John Earle. On the side of the filmmakers and the artistic voices was Sterling van Wagenen, a Brigham Young University Film School graduate. They, along with a group of other people who supported the cause either financially or artistically, went forward to found the U.S. Film Festival. This group of people looked to accomplish three main tasks for the state of Utah and the film industry. They wanted to bring an artistic forum where people could watch and discuss the best of American films. Also, it was an idea meant to bring more filmmakers and studios to Utah with a national event that they could host. Finally, this group also looked to get a competition that would showcase and bring forward films that were not from the Hollywood Studio systems, or independent films.

The festival begun very small. It even added the “Utah” to the name of the film festival to make sure that citizens of Utah could feel as though it was an event all their own instead of something created outside of the area and therefore not authentic to their state. By giving them that connection to the festival in the early stages, some locals were able to lend their support and to persuade others to offer their support. One key to the early development was the involvement of Utah citizen and film star Robert Redford. He became the festival’s first chairman and lent some instant credibility to the festival. Early on, they also switched the festival from a traditionally warm summer season to January, the heart of the ski season in Park City, the festival’s new home in 1981. This would attract a lot more film heads, if for nothing else than to watch some films and ski the slopes.

Early funding would be largely provided by the commissioner John Earle, although many other sources could be found. Some local investors put money into the event in an effort to promote growth and development in the area. Other contributions came from some wealthy contributors and sponsors from within the business looking for a festival to support and allow to compete with some of the best festivals the world had to offer. They especially wanted a festival that they could call their own version of Cannes, which had been running since 1939.

Growth in the 80’s

Although having some varied success in their first few years, it was after the 1981 festival when things began to come into focus and the picture looked bleaked. The year prior, they had been able to make up a lot of the debt that had been produced by the first one, and although the move to Park City had proven successful in terms of filling a time of the year which was considered vastly dead in terms of tourism and also brought record attendance at film showings. However, that positive energy quickly faded when it was realized that although there were record numbers in the films themselves, overall attendance had dropped due to the snowstorms. They would even find themselves over $100,000 in debt after this third festival. They would garner enough support to continue the festival by getting some key in-state donors and fundraisers by the Utah Film Commission. That 1982 festival would prove the turning point because they would broaden the span of films being shown while raising the box-office numbers.

After two more festivals, they seemed to receive the critical acclaim they were hoping for, but financial dificulties continued to threaten the festival. It was then, in 1985, that the Sundance Institute decided it would be in their mutual interest to take control of the festival. The institute’s purpose was to continue to bring exposure to independent films, and having a festival under its wing would be a powerful ally in that fight. Meanwhile, the Institute, a non-profit organization, could provide for people to work all year organizing and promoting the events and, of course, much needed financial support. They would double their attendance that year and begin to grow with new, edgy films and an array of international films added.

A breakout moment, not only for the festival but for a young volunteer-turned-director, seemed to bring the festival to the mainstream like it had never been before. Steven Soderbergh, who once served as a volunteer driving a ferry bus around the festival, had brought into the festival his debut film Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Not only did he win the first ever audience award, he sparked a bidding war between major studios unrivaled in film history. His success earmarked the January festival as a “must” for industry execs looking for a breakout film that would make it in the mainstream audiences.

The 90’s: Growing Media and a Name Change

The early 1990 festival did not receive the accolades that the prior year received, although it did display a few good films. In 1991, however, the festival would be changed forever in a way that makes it more recognizable now in the world’s perspective. Geoffrey Gilmore took the lead of the festival, and they would give it it’s final and famous name; The Sundance Film Festival. Interest in independent films grew exponentially and they would in turn see, in the early 90’s, the emergence of young filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez. Films began to push the envelope with its new forum, and while they produced awesome films, they were also the subject of some controversy in the industry.

As we would move later on in the decade, the influence of the Hollywood corporate system began to slowly take stronger hold of the festival. More and more, agents and lawyers were scurrying around the streets of Park City in hopes of finding that next breakthrough filmmaker. Studio heads were making their way to the event to attract films and cause stirs with bidding wars. As this growth continued, it was believed that they should move the festival back to Salt Lake City, it’s original home, to house the larger crowds and the businesses. In the end, it was subdued by the building of the Eccles Center, which holds 1,300 people for a screening.

The end of the 90’s would bring forth it’s biggest buzz, which came in the form of The Blair Witch Project. It would breakout almost immediately, although the buzz for the movie was basically non-existant and considered very lackluster for its eventual success. It would end up bringing in $140 million domestically and would bring in more worldwide, making it the most successful independent movie of all time. It was not the only movie, however, as a movie called Go by Doug Liman, who had brought Swingersto the festival some years prior, and a German movie called Run Lola Run would intrigue festival goers.

The Future of Sundance

With the festival moving into the 21st century, they would turn away from the hype machines that the festivals embodied in the 90’s and turn its attention back into the films that were there, not to the hype and the speculation surrounding them. They continue to set attendance records and have now easily cemented its place as one of the top festivals in the world, matching up to its French and Italian counterparts in Cannes and Venice, respectively. Big name stars are going back to doing independent films, bringing big-star credibility to the smaller films which have little else to draw on with the rising of the studio blockbusters. As Sundance continues to progress, as do the hopes and dreams of independent filmmakers everywhere.

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