Sundance History

Each year, towards the end of January, an eager host gathers in the small resort town of Park City, Utah. There are, of course, the industry types, hoping to get first crack at the next big thing. There are the stars and wannabes, hoping to be noticed, to get their faces on the news. There are the cinephiles waiting to get their fix, to see something they’ve never seen. And there are the starstruck, hoping to catch a glimpse or take a photo, to capture the feel of somebody else’s fifteen minutes of fame.

What keeps them all coming back are the filmmakers whose work offers up compelling and unique visions of the world. Sundance is the largest independent film festival in the United States, but in spite of its growth it has, for the most part, managed to retain its edge. The lineup of films remains diverse and exciting, and it is still possible to make connections with very interesting people from around the world who are there simply because they love film.

The festival started out in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival under the leadership of Utah filmmaker Sterling van Wagenen and Utah film commissioner John Earle. Showing mostly classics, along with panel discussions by famous filmmakers, it included a small roster of independent films made by largely unknown filmmakers. The festival struggled to find its identity for the first few years, but hit its stride and took on a new name in 1985, under the leadership of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. The seventh festival featured the debut films of Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise) and the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple).

The reputation of the film festival continued to grow, but exploded in 1989, when a former volunteer bus driver for the festival by the name of Steven Soderbergh wowed audiences with his intense and provocative film sex, lies, and videotape. Subsequent festivals have introduced the world to filmmakers such as Hal Hartley (Flirt, The Unbelievable Truth), Michael Moore (Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine), Todd Haynes (Poison, SafeFar From Heaven), Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven, Standard Operating Procedure), Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects, X-Men), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Sin City), Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction), Kevin Smith (Clerks, Zach and Miri Make a Porno), and Chris Nolan (Memento, The Dark Knight).

Alongside the main festival, several other smaller film festivals have grown up in Park City — giving the film lover a wide range of choices for films ranging from no-budget oddities to unique and compelling gems that might otherwise go unseen. Festivals with names like X-dance (extreme sports films), Troma Dance (look up Troma films if you really want to know), and Nodance (you may be starting to see a trend), have come and gone, but the enduring alternative to Sundance has been the Slamdance Film Festival, running since 1995 and getting bigger and better every year. In fact, while Chris Nolan of Batman fame was put on the map when he played Memento at Sundance, it was Slamdance that gave him his first big break, screening his debut film Following in 1999.

While Sundance has been and remains the most important venue for independent feature films in America, it has increasingly expanded its offerings of foreign films. It now offers competitions in both the feature and documentary categories for both American and World Cinema. One of the most exciting developments over the past several years has been the presence at both Slamdance and Sundance of some of the most groundbreaking and important work in documentary. Films like March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, In the Shadow of the Moon, War/Dance, and Man on Wire (to name just the most recent) were noticed first at Sundance, and the very successful Mad Hot Ballroom played first at Slamdance. The lineup this year, in both feature films and documentaries, looks as exciting as ever. Stay tuned for up-to-the-minute news and reviews as our team takes a look at the offerings of Sundance and Slamdance 2009!

(Questions? Contact Nathan Andersen)

Learn more:

From Sundance to Sarajevo

Sundance: A Festival Virgin’s Guide

Independent’s Day

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film