The past 10 days have seen Park City, Utah play host to the Sundance Film Festival, one of the largest independent film festivals in the United States. For 10 days, I have been seeing films, attending premieres, going to events, and meeting dozens of incredible filmmakers, producers, writers, artists, and film lovers. (Photo with the talented actor Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad who was the lead in Hellion) This year the festival was particularly celebratory, as 2014 was Sundance’s 30th anniversary, and a retrospective short film shown prior to each screening only served to reinforce just how influential this festival has been over its 30 year history. This year’s festival ended yesterday, and so now it’s time to look back on not just the past 10 days, but also the past 30 years, to get a sense of the success of Sundance and its extraordinary legacy.
The Sundance Film Festival began as an initiative to celebrate American filmmaking, and to give exposure to independent films and showcase their potential. From its humble roots three decades ago, when 86 films were screened at just two cinemas, to its peak attendance of 52,849 in 2006, to this year’s 186 films screened at nine different theatres, Sundance has come a long way. While there will always be critics claiming that Sundance has become a victim of its own success and that the festival has gone too mainstream, it is important to remember that beyond all of the glitz and glamour, Sundance truly is a showcase for independent filmmaking, and this year alone, there where 54 first time filmmakers premiering their feature films.
This is not surprising, because Sundance has a long history of championing up and coming voices in cinema, and the festival has launched the careers of many of Hollywood’s most in demand directors, including Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Darren Aronofsky, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Popular films that have debuted at Sundance over the years include Clerks, Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Reservoir Dogs, The Blair Witch Project, Winter’s Bone, and El Mariachi. However, it is the festival’s success in the documentary field that makes Sundance stand apart from other festivals. As festival founder Robert Redford claims, the documentaries are key to Sundance’s success and impact. As Redford says, “I wanted to use the Sundance Festival to create a platform for documentaries and then elevate that and just keep pushing and pushing, because I believe that documentaries would one day begin to almost compete with feature films”.
I couldn’t agree more, because the slate of documentary films that premiere each year at the festival are astonishing. From the mainstream success story of Hoop Dreams in 1994, to Waiting For Superman, The Invisible War, Blackfish, and The Queen of Versailles in recent years, the documentaries that are shown at Sundance are always thought provoking, conversation starters, and socially relevant. This year was no exception with the incredible film The Green Prince winning the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary. It was also my personal favorite. Additional festival winners included Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for US Dramatic Film, Rich Hill, which won the Grand Jury Prize US Documentary, and Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, which won the Audience Award for US Documentary. A full list of winners can be found here.
Ultimately, Sundance is all about stories, and the range of groundbreaking, important, and fascinating stories that have been told at Sundance throughout the years is the true legacy of this film festival. It used to be that the only way people could see these stories was to attend the festival and/or hope that the film they wanted to see got picked up for distribution. Today, the technology of digital distribution, VOD, and even Netflix makes it easier than ever for people to have access to the wealth of films that premiere at Sundance. With many films already picked up for distribution this year, audiences across the country will have a chance to experience these stories; to delight in them, to learn from them, and to be moved by them. This is the essence of what the Sundance Film Festival has been doing for 30 years. That’s something to celebrate.