For one week every year, the normally sleepy ski town with a population of about 7,600, transforms into the epicenter of the film world, complete with Los Angeles insiders and lavish parties with corporate sponsorship.
But it wasn’t always this way. The Sundance Film Festival, regarded today as one of the top film festivals in the world, emerged from humble beginnings.
“It’s always starred and showcased independent films with a focus on people,” said Brian Patrick, a professor of film production. “If you think about Robert Redford’s film ‘Ordinary People’ — that’s what the festival is really about, ordinary people.”
In 1978, when the concept of independent films was fairly new, Patrick attended a preliminary meeting to discuss the possibility of having an independent film festival in Utah. Others in the meeting included Sterling van Wagenen, a cousin of Redford’s first wife, Lola van Wagenen.
Patrick said he wanted it to be based around short films. “Sterling said to me, ‘Brian, I know that’s good advice, but we want to do it this way.’ And look at what they’ve done.”
Van Wagenen, with backing from the Utah Film Commission, launched the Utah/U.S. Film Festival later that year in Salt Lake City.
Lory Smith wrote in “Party in a Box” that it was Sydney Pollack’s idea to move the festival from Salt Lake City to Park City.
“You’d be the only film festival in the world held in a ski resort during ski season, and Hollywood would beat down the door to attend,” Pollack said.
The festival built up momentum gradually during the ’80s, adapting and changing with each financial hurdle. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the festival finally hit its stride.
“1989’s festival marked a turning point in the genesis of the festival,” wrote Smith, who is a former festival program director.
That was the year Steven Soderbergh, a one-time festival volunteer driver, premiered his film “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”
Soderbergh’s film won the Audience Award at that year’s festival. The buzz surrounding “Sex, Lies and Videotape” sparked a bidding war among entertainment companies wanting to secure the distribution rights.
“Sex, Lies and Videotape” was made with an estimated $1.2 million budget and went on to gross more than $24 million in the United States alone.
In 1991, the name of the festival was officially changed to the Sundance Film Festival. Filmmakers and studio executives started to show up in droves — the former hoping to get discovered, the latter looking to snatch up the next low-budget blockbuster.
May Bartlett, a sophomore in film and a filmmaker in her own right, has been attending Sundance since she was 12. She doesn’t see the Hollywood invasion of the independent film festival as a bad thing.
“It definitely changes the experience, but I wouldn’t say it cheapens it,” Bartlett said.
For Bartlett, as for many regular festival-goers, the original spirit of Sundance is still alive.
“There’s always a way to get around all of the craziness and just see films, like by going to showings here in Salt Lake,” Bartlett said.
After all, that’s where it all began.
*Originally published in The Daily Utah Chronicle.