Changes evident as festival organizers celebrate opening of Sundance 2020

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PARK CITY — As the 2020 Sundance Film Festival gets underway Thursday, with the theme “Imagined Futures,” there is at least one person in Park City who will be pondering what’s next.

The 2020 event will be Festival Director John Cooper’s last. It’s the 30th festival in which he’s been involved, and the 11th for which he’s served as director.

“This is my final year as director, and reflecting on the insane and this exhilarating ride of my last 30 years, it’s almost impossible to offer any summation,” Cooper said Thursday. “If anything, we’ve learned — as (festival founder Robert Redford) has often reminded us — that change is the only thing that we can count on.”

The Sundance Film Festival runs today through Feb. 2 in Park City, Salt Lake City and Sundance Mountain Resort in Provo Canyon.

As much of the cinema world looks toward wrapping up the 2019 year in film with the Academy Awards next month, Sundance is often seen as kickoff to the 2020 movie year. The independent film festival will feature a total of 244 projects from 44 countries, including feature films, documentaries, short films and other projects.

After the festival ends, Cooper will take on a director emeritus role at the Sundance Institute.

“None of this would be possible without the incredible Sundance Institute staff, including John Cooper,” Redford said in a letter distributed Thursday. “A tremendous thank you to him for his invaluable contributions to the work that we do.”

Cooper’s exit is the latest in a string of changes that the festival has seen in the past few years.

At the 2019 festival, Redford announced he would be stepping back and taking a less active role for the festival. Sundance Institute organizers also announced last year they would ramp up efforts to diversify the festival more (that effort has been met with some speed bumps this year, however).

Sundance also scrapped the opening press conference, which has traditionally kicked off the festival. Instead, they distributed a “Day One Press Kit” featuring remarks from Cooper, Redford, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, Director of Programming Kim Yutani and others.

The press kit came complete with a message from Bird Runningwater, a member of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache Tribes who serves as director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program. He thanked the Ute tribe, the ancestral keepers of the land on which the Sundance Film Festival takes place, for allowing the festival to be there.

Like Cooper, the group acknowledged the changing times surrounding the festival. They stressed the importance of amplifying marginalized voices and the need to protect stories through freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

“This is a critical time for each of us to question why things are the way they are,” Putnam said. “To ask whose voices are being marginalized, and why. To notice whose perspectives we aren’t seeing and why not. And to recognize that media has worth far beyond its market value, or what it makes at the box office.”

That last part hasn’t fallen on deaf ears at the festival. Studios spent millions to get their hands on films that debuted in Park City last year.

New Line Cinemas and Warner Bros. Pictures spent $15 million for the rights to the Bruce Springsteen-themed coming-of-age film “Blinded By The Light.”

Amazon, however, was the biggest spender last year. The company paid $14 million for the rights to the Adam Driver-starring “The Report,” which examined the procedure behind the release of the CIA torture report in 2014. The tech giant dished out another $13 million for the Mindy Kaling/Emma Thompson comedy “Late Night,” and bought the rights to “Brittany Runs A Marathon” for $14 million.

Unfortunately, none of those huge deals worked out very well. No film distributed at Sundance last year made more than $20 million at U.S. box offices, according to the Los Angeles Times.

This year, fewer than 100 feature films will seek a distributor at Sundance, down 14% from 2019, the Times reported.

Nevertheless, Yutani said the festival’s slate of films this year features diverse perspectives and distinct voices.

“What struck me and my team about this year’s program, when we stepped back to consider it as a whole, is how distinctive each work is, and how their individual voices resonate and engage with each other,” said Yutani, who oversees the selection process for all festival films.

Many of the movies this year contain similar themes: Family, home and the power of passionate people to inspire change, she said.

“But each work that tackles those concepts does so in a wildly individual way — which is a core tenet of the festival,” she added.

The enthusiastic language from organizers fits with a festival that draws eager cinema fans from all over the world who come seeking exciting, innovative projects that will show them something they’ve never seen before.

“The stories we’ve collected this year reflect what’s preoccupying independent artists around the world — and their stories will go on at this festival and create a new wave of culture,” Cooper said. “It’s this spirit of openness, of genuine affection of each other and for the work, and — dare I say — independence, and it’s this spirit of generosity. These are the qualities that make Sundance different, that make it what it is.”

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