Q&A: John Cooper

The new Sundance Festival director has big plans for small movies

John Cooper has been a fixture at the Sundance Institute for more than 20 years, slowly rising from a volunteer to his appointment as festival director in March. Since then, he's already added a new program for low- and no-budget films and is eying more involvement in distribution. Heading into his first Sundance in the top job, Cooper spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Matthew Belloni.

The Hollywood Reporter: What's the best piece of advice you've received since taking over?

John Cooper: I made a mailbox where anybody could give me advice about anything. A lot of it was about the Premieres section. Like, "A word of warning about Premieres: Don't think we need big films with big stars to have a good time at the festival."

THR: I bet the studios didn't say that.

Cooper: They were like, "Please let us buy all the independent film companies so we can shut them down!" (Laughs.)

THR: Most of the planning for last year's Sundance was done before the financial meltdown. How have you felt the impact this year?

Cooper: We are still selling tickets at the same level, (but) there's going to be less industry (people). We know that. It makes sense because either people have cut back or the companies are gone. That space has been filled up with general audience, so we're in pretty good shape. The thing I was bracing myself for was a drop in sponsorship, which we didn't have this year. We worked hard to make that happen. The one thing I did this year more than I did in the past is talk to sponsors to find out what they need to be a sponsor and see if we can work it out. Be a little more creative with them.

THR: When are we going to see the impact of fewer films getting made on the festivals?

Cooper: I don't know. I keep waiting for it. Every year I think, maybe it's next year. Maybe there's a two-year lull before you feel it. Maybe (this year) there are less films in a certain budget range -- $10 million-$15 million. Probably there are fewer of those. That's OK with me.

THR: New programs will take festival films on the road and put them on VOD. Is Sundance planning to play a bigger role in distribution?

Cooper: We could, but it'll have to be right. It can't destroy our core mission, which is really as a platform that serves filmmakers. If you're going into distribution, then (the festival is) a distribution company that throws a party for itself. You might be able to get away with that for a few years, but it's soon going to look tired.

THR: But if a tiny film is a hit at Sundance, the audience should be able to find it and see it as soon as possible, right?

Cooper: What we might do is, the film festival might become the theatrical opening night for a film. Especially films that don't get theatrical (distribution). We're talking to a lot of people about that. Because here's what happens: You come to Sundance and it's a hot moment for your film, then you get mentioned in the New York Times, but nobody can get to your film until six months later. One of the problems with our industry is, to get that heat back on a film costs a lot of money. So clever filmmakers and clever producers are going to figure out how to use that heat to get their film into the marketplace.

THR: Do you go into the festival with a personal list of films you think will be breakouts?

Cooper: No. I have a pretty good eye for that, I must admit, but I never do it. I do like to track the progress and popularity of films. The film I wanted to track last year was "Precious." Because it was such a rigorous (experience), I wasn't sure audiences were going to respond to it the way I did. I like to test myself.

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THR: What's a film where you completely did not expect the reaction?

Cooper: "Napoleon Dynamite" (2004) we weren't sure about. I knew that we responded to it, but I wasn't sure if anyone would even buy that film. I remember "Once" (2006). Talking to distributors, very few of them had any intention of seeing that movie. I even heard from some of them later who said, "We didn't listen to you." It just looked small and felt small. Those are hard, when they're small but effective. Like, I wish "Humpday" would have done better last year. I still think there's an audience that hasn't discovered that film yet.

THR: Is there a film you're rooting for this year?

Cooper: I have a special place in my heart for "Douchebag." Everything is perfect in this movie. The performances, the writing, the look of it. Being small fits this movie. That's what I get excited about.