Sundance Film Festival celebrates 40 years, honors filmmakers, actors

Christopher Nolan and Robert Downey Jr. at the Opening Night Gala. Nolan received the Trailblazer Award. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The Sundance Film Festival began on Jan. 18 with opening remarks from the Sundance Institute CEO and festival coordinators, and the Opening Night Gala which honored Christopher Nolan, Kristen Stewart and other artists.

Jason Blum, a member of the Sundance Institute Board of Trustees, moderated an opening press conference with Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, Sundance Film Festival Director and Head of Public Programming Eugene Hernandez and Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming Kim Yutani.

“I think Sundance is a vital, vital part of the entertainment ecosystem,” Blum said.

The non-profit organization provides exciting opportunities to highlight young filmmakers at the beginning of their careers and showcase bold storytelling, Vicente said.

Hernandez said he hopes attendees will take advantage of the chance to discover new filmmakers and stories.

“That’s the thing that I think has meant so much to me about coming to this festival for now 30 years, is always being introduced to something new and exciting, always meeting and connecting with people,” he said. 

According to Yutani, Sundance received over 17,000 film submissions — a record for the festival. She said of those submissions, a programming team selected 91 feature films and 53 short films to screen at the festival.

“So many people come to Sundance for this element of discovery, that I think is really present in this year’s program,” she said. 

When selecting what to screen, Hernandez said they look for a film that is ready to meet its audience and industry.

“Each of these films is ready for its moment,” he said.

95% of this year’s films are making their world premiere at Sundance, Yutani said.

Hernandez said they celebrate the future of Sundance by looking ahead, as well as looking back at the past 40 years and honoring those who made the film festival what it is today.

Several Sundance classics will screen at this year’s festival, including “Napoleon Dynamite,” which premiered at Sundance 20 years ago, Yutani said. 

In the spirit of looking back, Sundance Institute held an Opening Night Gala which honored several individuals with ties to the film festival.

Christopher Nolan’s Sundance ties run deep. His first film, “Memento,” screened at Sundance in 2001. 

Nolan received the first ever Sundance Institute Trailblazer Award, which recognizes contributions to the field of independent film, according to Sundance Institute. 

He was presented the award by Robert Downey Jr.

Kristen Stewart received the Visionary Award for her work as an actor. Stewart has been in more than 10 Sundance films over the years, Vicente said.

“We’ve kind of seen her grow up here,” she said. 

The annual Vanguard Awards for Fiction and Nonfiction were awarded to Celine Song and Maite Alberdi, respectively.

The awards “highlight the art of storytelling and creative independence in both nonfiction and fiction,” according to Sundance Institute.

Pat Mitchell, former Sundance Institute Board Chair and trustee, received the Vanguard Award for philanthropy. She received the award “in recognition of her exemplary commitment to the Institute’s support and to philanthropy for social impact,” according to Sundance Institute. 

The Sundance Film Festival is ongoing and ends on Jan. 28.

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