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Redford reflects on differences of Sundance from beginning to now

(Steve Landeen, KSL TV)

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PARK CITY — The vision Robert Redford had for the Sundance Film Festival is comparable with founders of other arts organizations in Utah — Maurice Abravanel and the Utah Symphony, Willem Christensen and Ballet West, Fred Adams and the Utah Shakespeare Festival.

But in each case, what began with one person's determination and many skeptics became international successes.

"When I first started this, I was told that it would fail," Redford said.

Just because Redford enjoyed success in the film industry didn't mean his vision for others would.

"I'd be standing out on the street just trying to get people to come into the theater," Redford said.

In 1998, Redford said the reason he decided to hold the festival in Utah was that he believed the state could "benefit from more sophistication having to do with the arts."

Before the festival, came the Sundance Institute. Redford brought some of the best professional actors — Paul Newman and Karl Malden — and directors of the day together with young filmmakers in workshops at the Sundance Resort.

30th anniversary demonstrates the evolution of the Sundance Film Festival
By Carole Mikita
PARK CITY — Various changes have taken place over the decades at the Sundance Film Festival.

Organizers prepared Wednesday for the 30th anniversary celebration as Park City residents were watching the arrivals of filmmakers, stars and the media. There was a film festival that preceded the present one, before Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute took it over.

"It's the single most productive public relations effort that the state has with the film industry," said John Earl, founder of the original film festival, in 1980.

Utah resident Robert Redford, an advisor, agreed to take over a financially-struggling festival in 1985.

"There were a lot of people who had bruised feelings from what had happened before, I wasn't even aware of," Redford said. "So we tried it, and there was like, mixed support."

Ten years later, Redford remembered the risk, the fear and little support.

"The first year we had an attendance of 400 people and all signs indicated that this was probably going to be one of the great tank jobs of all time," Redford said in 1994.

Soon, Sundance films attracted Hollywood stars.

Gwenyth Paltrow, star of the 1998 film "Sliding Doors," attended to promote a movie made with a minimal budget the same year it was released.

Some received awards as independent artists.

"What this means to me is that I'm on the right road, and I'm going to keep trying to do the best work that I can," Kevin Spacey said at the festival in 2000.

Even Britain's best came to premiere a film here.

"It's a beacon, really. Not just for America, but in terms of the world as a truly independent festival for pictures that are almost always the product of great passion," Kenneth Branagh said of Sundance in 1996.

Festival organizers say it still maintains its original intent — providing a place for independent filmmakers to showcase their art.

"Getting in makes you feel like it was all worth it; all the risk, all the financial burden, everything," Independent filmmaker Bridget Bedard said in 2005. "It's a really good feeling."

The festival added more Park City venues over the years. Joan Rivers joked about her documentary, which was shown in 2010.

"This is the premiere and I think it's hilarious we're in a Jewish temple," Rivers said. "Six of my relatives are downstairs praying."

Last year, NBA star Jeremy Lin attended to talk about the documentary "Linsanity."

"I think there's a lot of different angles this film will be able to impact people," Lin said.

Filmmakers throughout the world give the credit to Robert Redford.

"I had a real passion for what I thought could be done, at a certain time, that would create something new and possible, but it was only a hope," Redford said. "There was nothing else to go on, so those are scary times, but you go through them because you believe in them."

"I believe in contributing something back into the business that you're in," Redford said 1985. "What you take out, you put back in some way. And I've been fortunate in this business."

By that time, Redford had had another huge film success, "The Natural." There was a personal reason he was attracted to the script.

"It has a little bit to do with my dad," Redford said of his role in the film in 1984. "We had quite a connection playing catch when I was a kid. We used to play catch and that was a way for him to relax and it was a way for me to communicate with him without him getting mad at me for all the things I did wrong."

Redford traveled to Montana in 1991 where he was directing "A River Runs Through It," an independent film that Hollywood had rejected.

"There will always be space for just a well-told story," Redford said while working on the film.

Meanwhile, the Sundance Film Festival became the place to be and be seen. Hollywood invaded Park City, which brought the paparazzi and swag.

Redford tried to remind everyone about the real purpose.

"This is about the filmmakers," Redford said. "This is about their work and us showing their work to you."

But popularity also brought criticism. At one point, Redford found himself defending his vision, including artistic freedom.

"Raising voices of dissent, asking important questions, opening up to new ways of thinking and new ideologies and sharing their views was somehow equated with being unpatriotic, which is utter nonsense," Redofrd said. "It's merely the American way. It's really a fundamental principle."

In 2009, Redford celebrated the 40th anniversary of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

"Butch Cassidy is such a vital part of Utah history, the outlaw part, which is something I can identify with, unfortunately," Redford said.

Not well known at the time, it was Redford who convinced director George Roy Hill to shoot the film here. Redford said Hill told him he didn't know anything about Utah.

"I said, 'I'm telling you, there are parts of Utah that are not like anything else in the world,' " Redford said.

His latest film role in "All is Lost" came from an independent filmmaker who started at Sundance. It has brought critical acclaim to both, but Redford admits the festival success has come at a personal cost.

"If there's been any, any negative part of this, it's that I've lost a lot of my own career time endorsing and sponsoring Sundance," Redford said. "Probably more time than I ever dreamed, but I believe in it, so I did it."

The Sundance Film Festival will stay in Park City through 2026, its founder determined to press on.

"That's all there is, just to continue," Redford said. "The rest is not our business. Do you remember what T.S. Elliott said? 'There's only the trying, the rest is not our business.' That's pretty much the way I feel."


Carole Mikita


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