Sundance Film Festival has surprising ties to BYU

The Egyptian Theatre is a popular screening location for Sundance films. The theatre is located in Park City, Utah. (Universe Archives)
The Egyptian Theatre is a popular screening location for Sundance films. The theater is located in Park City, Utah. (Universe Archives)

Actors, directors, film fans and locals converge on Park City each year for the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance is recognized across the world, but few people know BYU graduates have been tied to the iconic festival since its earliest days.

A BYU alum’s idea

Actor Robert Redford’s name is inseparable from the Sundance Film Festival, but a Utah filmmaker can take credit for kickstarting a festival that was Sundance’s early predecessor.

BYU graduate Sterling Van Wagenen set up a local festival celebrating American movies in 1976. Two years later, he wanted to host a larger festival that would attract filmmakers to Utah. He and a friend decided to showcase independent films and called their brain child the Utah/U.S. Film Festival.

Redford heard about their efforts, called Van Wagenen and got involved. The famous actor joined the festival’s board, attended films and participated in a panel. Van Wagenen’s festival went over budget but attracted media attention and had long lines for screenings.

Redford founded the Sundance Institute after the festival ended, and the institute eventually began hosting the Sundance the public knows today.

BYU Motion Picture Studio

Pete Czerny, a former film editor at the BYU Motion Picture Studio, said Redford used to screen festival submissions in a Provo studio. The Motion Picture Studio is now affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints but was part of BYU when Redford was there.

Redford knew about the BYU Motion Picture Studio because his brother-in-law worked there. He got in touch with the studio director to ask if he and other judges could use the studio’s equipment.

“We did the screenings when there were no other people in the studio,” Czerny said. “It was always on a Saturday. My boss said, ‘Pete, could you work this Saturday for a few hours? Robert Redford and his team of judges need to see some films.'”

Czerny was responsible for setting up the submissions on the studio’s equipment: a 35 mm projector, a 16 mm projector and a VHS cassette player.

The judges screened submissions in the BYU Motion Picture Studio in the festival’s early days: 1981, 1982 and 1984.

“They could see everything right there in our studio,” Czerny said. “Redford was really thankful.”

BYU graduates and Sundance films

Van Wagenen returned to the Sundance scene in the mid-’80s as a movie producer. “The Trip to Bountiful” did not claim any awards at the film festival, but it earned Geraldine Page an Oscar for Best Leading Actress.

A sign outside of the Main Street area welcomes people to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Park City.  (Associated Press)
A sign outside of the Main Street area welcomes people to the 2014 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, in Park City. The film festival attracts thousands to Park City each year. (Associated Press)

Jared and Jerusha Hess, a husband and wife team who graduated from BYU, aren’t strangers to the film festival either. They co-wrote “Napoleon Dynamite,” and Jared directed the hit that debuted at Sundance in 2004. Fox Searchlight picked up the movie before the festival ended, and it grossed $46 million in theaters.

The Hesses collaborated on other movies like “Nacho Libre,” and their film “Don Verdean” premiered at Sundance in 2015. Jerusha worked with authors Shannon Hale and Stephenie Meyer to create “Austenland,” a 2013 Sundance film based on a novel by Hale. “Austenland” was mildly successful in the box office and made more than $2 million in the United States.

Former Cougar Greg Whiteley has written and directed three documentaries shown at Sundance: 2005’s “New York Doll,” 2014’s “Mitt” and 2015’s “Most Likely to Succeed.” His films spotlight a rock star who joined the LDS Church, a presidential candidate and his family and a charter school in San Diego.

But not all BYU students are majoring in film or planning a career in show business, so strengthening the school’s Sundance ties could be as simple as attending a film or strolling down Main Street in Park City. The 2016 Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 21 to Jan. 31 with an expected crowd of thousands.


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