A conversation with Robert Redford

First things first: at 75, actor, director, and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford is as virile and dashing as ever.

Named after his character from BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, Sundance was known as the U.S./Utah Film Festival when he founded it in 1978. In 1981, the festival moved to Park City, and in 1984, it was renamed the Sundance Film Festival. It soon became the premier showcase for independent film.

In the past few years, the festival’s film slate has marked a return to its glory days of thrilling, pure indie fare. And in 2010, nine Sundance films went on to garner 15 Oscar nominations; four of the five Best Documentary nominees originated at Sundance.

Sundance Chairperson Robert Redford took some time out of his busy schedule to chat with Sundance Channel about how the fest has evolved over the years and keeping the nefarious “batshit” marketing elements away from his festival.

You mentioned the collapse of mainstream cinema at the press conference. Could you elaborate on that?
Years ago, the studio system was the heart of the industry, and they had a very strong connection with theater owners. Any artist that came through had to be beholden to the rules, which meant very heavy emphasis on commerciality, so you would have studios come in demanding cuts or not accepting offbeat fare. That changed, and when it did, other changes came on top of it driven by new technology, so those budgets inflated to over $100 million. Studios in the late ‘80s then went in that direction, which left the more humanistic films alone. There’s not much left of that mainstream industry, which has opened up wide territory for independent film to get different product out there—like the Internet. Now, if you look at so-called studio work, it’s usually franchise films like HARRY POTTER that are going to cost a lot of money. It’s narrowed it down to where the studio system doesn’t exist like it did.

And independent film seems to be on the upswing.
It seems to be growing. Spike Lee started indie and went into the mainstream to do work there, and now he’s come back to do an independent because he feels that’s a better place for him; Stephen Frears, same thing. I’m seeing radical changes that are pushing more towards independent film and away from the mainstream.

How has indie film changed since it began in the ‘60s and ‘70s?
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN took four years to make because you were fighting some obstacles that were against the mainstream thinking. What’s changed is there’s more opportunities, more availability, a different attitude about the value of independent film then there was in 1980, when I started. There virtually was no independent film category other than government grants like the NEH and NEA that would give five or ten thousand dollars to films that would end up in classrooms and they’d call them independent films. There was EASY RIDER, ENDLESS SUMMER, that’s it. When I started there was no such thing, so the idea was to take this category that was sort of moribund, and to see if we could focus Sundance on that area, and it eventually led to the idea of a festival to create a community of artists who could see each other’s work, and if we’re lucky, somebody would come.

MARGIN CALL, which premiered at Sundance last year, did so well on Video-On-Demand. Do you think that’s going to change things?
Talk is cheap so there’s nothing like a living example to change things. I’m doing a film with [MARGIN CALL director] J.C. Chandor after I finish my film, which I’m going to have to turn over in April. This project is just about a character alone and it’s called ALL IS LOST. But by having Sundance Channel able to acquire some of these films and put them on video-on-demand, we could give them new life.

This is the first year ever where no films in the ‘PREMIERES’ section have distribution. And in 2006, Little Miss Sunshine’s record $15 million acquisition really seemed to make people go a bit batshit crazy over purchasing Sundance titles, which led to a bloated film slate. But this year feels like it’s back to the nitty-gritty.
I’m glad to hear you say that. I started to get really nervous a few years ago when we had the ambush marketers and all these people who were trying to leverage the festival for their own interests that were not in the best interests of the filmmakers, or us. There was nothing I could do about it because it’s a free country, we’re non-profit, and we can’t control everything, but I had to fight hard and hard. One of the few good things about the economy crashing is it took the ambush marketers out of here so they didn’t have the money to purchase spaces on Main St. or these fancy condos out in Deer Valley where they held fashion houses and paparazzi. What that did was open up a little more space to say, “Guys, this is who we are and we’ve probably lost sight of that.” That having happened, I said to [chief programmer] John Cooper, “This could be an opportunity for us to get back to our roots.” It’s hard though, because there’s a lot of batshit around!

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