Sundance Kid

How will John Cooper change the indie world's most influential event?

In a year of upheaval in the indie world, the news came as a rare sign of continuity.

During his 20 years with the Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper has served as director of programming and director of creative development, an added title he took on in 2002. So when "Cooper" (as he's familiarly known along the festival circuit) was tapped in March to succeed Geoffrey Gilmore as director of the most influential film event in North America, the indie community exhaled with relief.

"He's been such a part of that organization in every capacity, that it's a move that's more than justified," Strand Releasing co-founder Marcus Hu says.

But since the announcement, speculation has swirled about what, if any, changes longtime Sundancegoers can expect at the 26th festival. Cooper says he has spent his first few months listening. But he is certainly going to inject some fresh ideas.

"Right now, I am changing the way we think about things and the way we listen to our stakeholders," Cooper says. "We have had a reputation of not listening too much, but I like processing a lot of information."

If his long association with Sundance has taught him anything, it's to be open to unexpected possibilities, because that is how he was introduced to the fest in the first place.

Two decades ago, Cooper was living in New York, toiling in a club act, when, during a layover in Salt Lake City on a flight home from San Francisco, he called a friend who happened to be working at Sundance. He ended up at a party that evening, where he met a lot of the early Sundance crowd who would become his future colleagues. That summer, he volunteered to work at a couple of the labs at the Sundance Institute, which led in turn to his first job at the 1990 festival, helping to manage prints.

At the same time, Sundance's reputation as home for earnest, "granola" movies was being overturned by the explosive reaction to Steven Soderbergh's "Sex, Lies and Videotape," which gave indie movies a new, hip cachet -- not to mention a rising profile at the boxoffice.

Taking on a role as programmer -- at first, he concentrated on short films -- Cooper's own responsibilities grew as the definition of indie film expanded with the festival's influence.

It was also at Sundance 20 years ago that Cooper met his partner, Paul-Louis Maillard, whom he married in November. Making their home in Los Feliz, Calif., they co-parent three daughters, now teens, with a lesbian couple in San Francisco. Even though Cooper commutes to Utah several times a year for meetings, most of his time is spent working out of the Sundance Institute's Beverly Hills offices.

Taking over after Gilmore's 19-year tenure, Cooper inherits a fest that has had to contend with the recession. "The economy can't be ignored," he says. "But I'm not letting that be the biggest challenge we face."

Instead, he points to the rapidly changing indie film world -- where financing has become problematic.

"Sundance has to serve that changing independent film world and be as responsive to it as we can," he says. "At first, it was all kind of stationary, and then what we did was a kind of fine-tuning. But now it's important to figure out where it is all heading so that the festival itself can remain vital."

While the crash crunch has rocked the indie world, Cooper reports that it has not affected the number of films trying to win a golden ticket to Sundance.

Last year, a record 3,661 feature-length films were submitted for the available 120 slots. "We started watching films a little earlier this year," Cooper says. "And so far the number of films that have been submitted is just about exactly the same as last year, maybe a little bit up, though I would imagine that a lot of people are working with lower budgets."

That, in turn, has suggested one of the first renovations Cooper hopes to bring to Sundance 2010. "We're looking to create a program for low- and no-budget films," he says. "Because if you don't carve out a section for them, things can get a little lost."

Cooper's interest in emerging trends shouldn't come as a surprise. He was an early champion of the new queer cinema that flourished at Sundance in the early 1990s. And was just as staunch a defender of LaBute's merciless dissection of heterosexual relationships when that director showed up with "In the Company of Men" in 1997. He also advocated the fest's experimental New Frontier on Main section, bringing together movies, new technology and performing artists.

Tony Safford -- head of acquisitions at Fox, and one of Cooper's earliest Sundance colleagues -- observes, "Cooper made sure the margins of independent cinema were represented at the festival -- films with provocative themes boldly presented. Complimenting Geoff's perhaps more overtly commercial tastes, Cooper and the other young programmers had the space to discover some immensely talented emerging filmmakers such as Gregg Araki, Todd Haynes and Neil LaBute."

In explaining his current interest in low-budget movie-making, Cooper points to "Humpday," Lynn Shelton's off-kilter buddy comedy. "It was fun, well-written and done with no money," says Cooper, and it was rewarded in January with a special jury prize.

Cooper hasn't yet come up with a name for a new section devoted to low-budget movies, but he says, "It has to be handled right. It has to be in the voice and the tone of those filmmakers."

As Cooper makes alterations in Sundance's traditional lineup, he has to be practical. He might lose the Spectrum section, which has become a catch-all category for films that don't quite rise to the level of premieres but don't quite fit into the various competitive categories, either.

But while he tinkers with the fest, Cooper isn't likely to introduce wholesale changes.

"We're a very seasoned festival," he says of the organization's staff, which includes six programmers handling features and another five overseeing shorts. Upon taking over the reins, one of his first moves was to promote Trevor Groth, a 16-year Sundance veteran, to replace him as director of programming. "We all speak in a sort of shorthand, we know each other so well," Cooper says. "And if there's a film I hate, I don't try to cut that film, but I give it to a person I think will like it" in hopes that one of the team will become its champion.

Cooper does have one personal item on his wish list, though. Amid the frenzy of the fest, he's hoping that there can be more locations -- like the bar that was set up for filmmakers in the Elks Building in January -- where he and others can meet to sit and talk.

"I'd like to have a place where you can go where it's quiet, you can have a martini, and there are comfortable seats." Cooper says.
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