We spoke to a lot of interesting people in Park City this year, but one of the most interesting was Mr. Sundance himself – Robert Redford. We’ve been to Sundance so many times that we felt it was about time to have a sit down with the Sundance Kid himself to talk new filmmaking technology, the fringe festivals and his very own Sundance Film Festival…
Is indie film today the same animal you fell in love with?
It is and it isn’t. Independent film back in those days was independent of commerciality, the way things were done in the establishment and — for many —theatrical release. It was independent just by virtue of it not being accepted in the mainstream market. That was one of my many reasons for going into that category, taking hold of it, building it and nurturing it — to bring it to a new place. In those days, the majority of independent films were reduced to endowment-grant projects that never saw the light of day. And, to be honest, most of those films were inferior in terms of being able to compete with films in the mainstream. Forget about the areas where money plays a role in it — it was a question of talent. There was a bit of tendency for a number of these filmmakers — but not all — whose skills could not compete in the mainstream to gravitate into the independent film world. It was kind of like people who stay in college too long because they’re afraid to get out there and apply themselves. They were hooked on scholarship programs. That’s what I found in the late 1970s. If you want to jump to today — and without trying to sound too self-serving — I think Sundance has played a large role in the evolution of independent film because that was our point, our purpose. Film has become a pandemic obsession throughout our culture and even throughout the world.
And with that, the choice of becoming a filmmaker is almost like the choice of becoming a doctor or lawyer was 20 years ago.
Absolutely. And as a result, we have a greater population of filmmakers that we ever had or even thought we would ever have. Too many, if you want to know the truth. We have a completely overdeveloped number of film schools and other places to learn filmmaking and they’re always filled because everybody wants to get into the field. It’s like it used to be 20 years ago at law schools — maybe because everybody wanted to become an executive at a studio. (laughs) These factors have created a kind of independent film that is closer to mainstream film in terms of style, look and feel in part because of the advanced technologies and the number of people who were able to get into filmmaking at a far earlier age. All you need is a little video camera. That wasn’t possible when I got started — we had 16mm, which is far more complicated. So with the rapid technology evolution and population increase, independent film has become much more sophisticated in terms of its craft. Unfortunately, what has not proportionately increased is the distribution and exhibition process — we’ve got this logjam in the market. And many of these films are better than mainstream films that have budgets that are four or five times higher, but they can’t compete because the studios that dominate the street are able to apply such enormous amounts of money to their marketing — often more than the entire production budget of an independent film. So unless a major studio acquires an independent film, it can’t survive.
General audiences have opened their eyes to indie film and many of these filmmakers have moved to broaden the appeal of their work.
I don’t think audiences have compromised. They just shrink away from fare that doesn’t suit them. But the mainstream market has also geared itself to a younger audience. Hollywood is nothing more than a business, so they go to wherever the money can be found. Such issues as whether movies are too violent or have been dumbed-down have no bearing in a Hollywood mentality that’s just interested in profits. Consequently, if the market finds itself with an audience of 10-year-olds, then the industry will start to favor them. With that favoritism there’s going to be shrinkage in adult-geared films. At that point, adults will no longer go to the marketplace. They will stay home. So what we’re trying to do at Sundance — and which led to the formation of the Sundance Channel and, in the not-to-distant future, the Sundance Cinema Centers — is provide an alternative. And that extends to providing opportunity to minorities and class-caste groups that wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to be heard — to increase that talent and product flow. We’re trying to give art a voice of independence in a cultural atmosphere that’s driven by corporate mergers and takeovers. When I saw that the Institute could be successful in providing a platform for new talent, the next step was creating an opportunity for people to see this work, so we started the festival. It was a showcase. But about four or five years into it, I began to see something phenomenal that I had not anticipated. Here we had a 10-day event in the winter, up in the mountains — where I purposely put it to make it harder to get to. Now, in the early days, I didn’t think anyone would come, and the first year nobody did. But it was a novel place to see films, it was the only festival in the winter, and you could at least ski if you don’t like the films. So that all worked out pretty well, but if you look at the demographics of the area, it’s a Mormon community right near Salt Lake City — not a place that, at the time, was known for its cultural sophistication. But what amazed me was that about five or six years in, I noticed that the makeup of the people attending the festival was changing. In ticket sales, we first favor the filmmaker, then local audiences, and then we say, “Okay, Hollywood come on in” with the merchants and the fashion parade. But when I saw people beginning to crowd the streets and theaters of Park City, and begin to be turned away from screenings, forcing us to reorganize our programming schedules to keep up with demand, I thought this was interesting. We had an unbelievable number of people coming in from — of all places — Salt Lake City. At that point, I knew that if we could survive and do well in that market, that there was a need for these kinds of films. And if we could do well in Salt Lake, then what about Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis, Louisville, Miami and other places like those? Audiences were starved for an alternative and there was no menu for them because of what the mainstream was offering up to them, like “Police Academy VIII.” And because of that bend to the younger audience — creating this mall-rat viewing atmosphere — older people don’t want to go to the movies at all. And therefore, films that might appeal to them stop being made. So the independent film market is poised to satisfy those people who are being deprived of more diverse films. The problem is making them aware of it, and that’s a key thing we’re concerned with.
Get the rest of the interview in part two of ROBERT REDFORD: THE SUNDANCE KID>>>