While many people are aware of the Sundance Film Festival, its history is not always known. Instead, something about Robert Redford lingers in our minds and … not much else. However, the roots of the festival remind moviegoers and filmmakers what this annual gathering is about.
The exact origin of the festival seems to be debatable, with the Sundance Institute crediting the official festival to be created by Redford in 1985 while other sources, including Time Magazine, have a more complex story which states that before “Sundance” and before hoards of celebrities, there was the U.S. Film Festival.
Organized in 1978 by Sterling Van Wagenen, who was then a recent BYU graduate, along with John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania, the U.S. Film Festival was created to showcase independent films as well as bring filmmakers to Utah.
While the first festival achieved moderate success, it concluded with more than a bit of debt. Van Wagenen told the Deseret News the first festival was $20,000 over budget. The need to pay the bills, in addition to a passion for independent film, propelled the founders to launch another festival the next year. With Redford as the first board chairmen, the group was able to establish a successful independent film festival.
By 1985 Redford took over the festival and eventually named it Sundance in 1991, after the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Because of his fame, Redford naturally launched the festival more than before into the public eye. With all the attention, the festival continued and still continues to grow in success.
Brad Barber, a professor in the Theatre and Media Arts Department at BYU, provided information on how BYU students have been involved in the festival.
“In the last five to 10 years we’ve had three or four student films there, which is really remarkable because they have more submissions than any other American festival that I know of,” he said. “There are well over 1,000 and there’s not many slots, so the chance of getting one is around one percent.”
Barber also spoke about how the festival has reached out to the Utah community, saying the festival offers special showings for Utah locals and opportunities for people to volunteer. He also said Sundance has now provided a list of family-friendly films.
“It kind of has a reputation for showing content that pushes the boundaries of what you’re used to, but there is so much great content that I don’t think anyone should write it off all together,” Barber said. “I think listing family-friendly films is a real effort on their part to reach out to locals.”
Marshall Moore, director of the Utah Film Commission for the past eight years, shared what the film festival has meant for Utah.
“The festival gives the state a lot of attention. The entire film world is turned to Utah during the 10 days,” Moore said. “It is one of the premiere film festivals in the world and the premiere festival in the United States.”
While this success has created the exciting and thriving atmosphere we know Sundance for, even Redford himself is known to have said publicity is not what the festival is about. Because many of the films shown have celebrities and endorsements, some less established films are overshadowed and go unnoticed, contradicting the principles the festival was built on.
However, Jim Faulkner, associate director of marketing at the Salt Lake Film Society, explained in an email how independent film can and does still have a place in Utah, thanks to Sundance.
“Sundance provides the audience an opportunity to transcend their film-watching comfort zone by exhibiting films with daring subject matter and cinematic methods, thus enriching and educating our audience,” Faulkner said. “I feel that we can really take advantage of a community that has grown with this film festival and maintains an astute knowledge of independent film.”