Sundance: Robert Redford Kicks Off Fest With Diversity Emphasis

Robert Redford - H 2015
Marc Horn

The fest founder, who spoke with executive director Keri Putnam and Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper, skirted questions about the Oscars to focus on independent film.

The Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday with a press conference featuring institute founder and president Robert Redford, executive director Keri Putnam and festival director John Cooper.

Among the topics covered at the event held at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street in Park City, Utah, were the fest's growth, hot documentaries and diversity in Hollywood. 

The latter issue, which has been a point of discussion since the Oscar nominations came out, came up early in the chat. Redford pointed out that diversity has always been a big part of Sundance.

“Diversity comes out of the word 'independence,'” he said. “If you're independent-minded, you're going to do things different from the common form, then you're going to have more diverse products. That’s something I think were generally pretty proud of, is how we show diversity in the festival because we think it's important."

He continued: "When we have these issues that come up, we don’t bring them up, we just bring a spotlight on the artists who bring them up. The artists are making films about what’s on the public mind.”

Added Putnam: “I think the first thing we want to do is make sure we’re looking at our own work and make sure we’re reaching into the populations we want to reach. What we’ve found is, together with a lot of organizations like ours whose job it is to find new storytellers, we do create a really great pipeline into the mainstream.”

Cooper also added that the Institute does a lot of work at the youth level to reach out to young voices. There are 3,000 youths that get to attend the festival through one of Sundance's programs, for example.


Redford, who said there were more than 12,000 submissions for this year's event, added that there has been an emphasis on making sure women and younger filmmakers are lifted up by the fest (there are 49 first-time filmmakers at this year's gathering).

When asked by a reporter about the lack of diversity in mainstream films, Redford responded, "There’s always a tendency, it seems, to label things and speak out against things, but I want to make it clear that I’m not against the mainstream. I’ve been a part of that and very happy to have been a part of that," he said. "I'm not against mainstream, this is just meant to broaden the film industry ... give audiences more choices."

But Redford wasn't about to dive into the controversy around the Oscars. Asked again by a reporter, he said, “I’m not into Oscars. I’m not into that.”

But he then went on to clarify: "I can just see the headline: 'I don’t like Oscars.' No, that’s for Donald Trump to say," joked Redford.

"What I mean is that I’m not focused on that part of it," he said. "To me, it’s about the work. Whatever reward comes from that is great, but I don’t think about it. Because there is nothing more important or exciting than the work when you are doing it. Once that work is done, I back off — whatever comes from that is fine, but it’s nothing that occupies my thinking."

Redford also spoke about the challenges facing indie film in this current climate.

“It’s tough, it’s always been tough for independent film," he said. " But I don’t think the tough stuff is exclusive to the independent world, because it think it’s tough for the film world in general ... because there have been threats, mostly in distribution."

Redford continued: “You’ve got streaming, you’ve got online, you’ve got Netflix, you’ve got HBO, you’ve got all these new areas that didn’t exist way back, and as a result it bleeds away from film. Independent film is not in a good place, but it’s always been tough. It survives because it had value.”

The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 31.