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It used to be that the Sundance Film Festival didn’t officially kick off until Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, gave his annual Day One speech onstage at Park City’s Egyptian Theater.
But on Thursday, as the festival commenced its 36th year in the snowy streets of Park City, Utah, Redford and executive staff decided to release comments in an online press kit, some via pretaped video.
Redford issued a short statement in a letter, praising the power of independent film. “Writers, directors, actors, critics, volunteers, patrons of the arts — we all file into the theaters here at the Sundance Film Festival as individuals, our minds preoccupied by the things we have going on in our day-to-day lives and our concerns about the wider world we live in,” he said. “But something magical happens when the lights finally dim, the chatter quiets down, the phones go dark and the curtain opens. From the moment the images begin to flicker across the screens before us, we become one, experiencing for the very first time the deeply personal visions of uncompromising independent creators from all walks of life. It is our great joy and privilege to help deliver these thought-provoking stories out into the world over the next 10 days, and we hope you will join us in continuing the important conversations they spark in the year ahead.”
Sundance executive director Keri Putnam said in a video statement that the festival was “the perfect place to be in a tumultuous moment in our culture,” and she made pointed remarks about content being “served up by algorithms,” which streaming platforms are specifically known to do.
“As we head into an election year, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression more broadly, are facing very serious threats in the U.S. and around the world. And when it comes to media and storytelling, audiences have seemingly infinite choices in what they consume. And there is a lot of great work getting made. But increasingly, content is being selected by only a handful of globally dominant entities and served up by algorithms designed to keep you watching,” Putnam said.
“So when choices about what to watch are made for people by forces that aren’t always visible and can’t be controlled, not only do we miss out on challenging ideas and great art — it’s dangerous. This is a moment that demands our participation — as audiences, as artists and as citizens. This is a critical time for each of us to question why things are the way they are. To ask whose voices are being marginalized and why. To notice whose perspectives we aren’t seeing and why not. And to recognize that media has worth far beyond its market value or what it makes at the box office.”
Putnam’s comments comes as streaming continues to explode, with Apple TV+, Disney+ and HBO Max joining the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Hulu on the ground at Sundance, scouring content to acquire. The festival is also preparing for bigger stars this year — Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Ben Affleck, Lin-Manuel Miranda, to name a few — as veteran industry executives say expanding the festival beyond its indie roots is necessary in the streaming age.
Festival programmer Kim Yutani, now in her second year, talked about the festival’s focus on inclusion initiatives and the overall diversity of this year’s Sundance slate — 128 feature films: 79 narrative features and 49 documentary features.
“What struck me and my team about this year’s program, when we stepped back to consider it as a whole, is how distinctive each work is, and how their individual voices resonate and engage with each other,” Yutani said. “Thematically, there are some through-lines: families, both biological and chosen; the concept of home (and its limitations); and the power of passionate individuals to make real change in the world. But each work that tackles those concepts does so in a wildly individual way, which is a core tenet of the festival.”
In his note, Redford made a point to thank the Sundance staff, particularly outgoing festival director John Cooper, who will leave his post this year after 11 years of overseeing the annual 10-day festival. Cooper, in a video statement, talked about the festival’s evolution as the landscape of film changed and praised the “spirit of openness, of genuine affection for each other and for the work.” He said, “As we continue to change and evolve, let’s always remember to foster the spirit as it carries us forward. The stories we’ve collected this year reflect what’s preoccupying independent artists around the world — and their stories will go on at this festival and create a new wave of culture.”
The pared back opening at Sundance this year comes after Redford spoke of moving on “to a different place” within the festival at last year’s opening-day press conference, which he departed early after making his remarks. Usually the festival programmers take questions from the press and talk broadly about Sundance — the largest U.S. independent film festival — and the state of the independent film industry. Last year, journalists had to presubmit their questions to be asked during the Q&A portion of the press conference. Redford will still be involved with the festival and will give remarks at the opening day films.
In December, when Sundance unveiled its slate, the festival touted its statistics of filmmakers as it gets closer to reaching its goal of gender parity. Out of the 90 directors of the 66 films in the five competition categories (U.S. narrative and docs, World narrative and docs and NEXT categories), 40 percent are women, 40 percent are people of color and 9 percent are LGBTQ+.
This year’s opening-day slate focuses on the festival’s nonfiction programming, highlighting Crip Camp, the story of a summer camp for people with disabilities that evolved in the 1970s, from the Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions company; and Netflix’s Miss Americana, the highly anticipated documentary about Taylor Swift. The age of streaming has brought back a growing demand for documentaries — Netflix is entering the festival with five nonfiction movies, while Hulu is debuting its Hillary Clinton docuseries, Hillary.
Apple TV+ was due to debut the Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering documentary On the Record, about sexual assault behind the scenes in the music industry, as part of the streamer’s partnership with Oprah Winfrey. But days before the festival, Winfrey dropped out of the project with little explanation, taking Apple with her. Dick and Ziering will still debut the documentary on Saturday, and it is up for acquisition.