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SUNDANCE BEFORE IT WAS SUNDANCE

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Jan. 19, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sundance Film Festival has been around for 40 years, believe it or not. It started in 1978 but it wasn’t called ‘Sundance’ yet. And yes, Robert Redford was involved even way back then. With the 2018 festival kicking off this weekend, it’s a good time review the event’s history. This column, which chronicles the festival’s first 20 years, was published in the Deseret News 20 years ago, Jan. 15, 1998, under the headline, ‘The Sundance Film Festival: It’s now premier U.S. showcase for independent filmmaking.’

As the 1998 Sundance Film Festival kicks into high gear this weekend, you will read or hear news reports that hail the festival’s eighth year … or its ninth year … or perhaps its 14th year.

Why the confusion? Because although Utah’s annual cinematic ritual was named the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, and the “Sundance” label was adopted in 1990 (as the Sundance United States Film Festival), it was actually for the 1985 festival that the Sundance Institute took over.

In truth, however, there was a festival before there was a Sundance Institute.

The 1998 Sundance Film Festival is the 20th annual event to celebrate independent cinema in Utah.

The first was held in September 1978. It was called the Utah/U.S. Film Festival and it was quite different from the incarnation we have come to know in recent years.

There was one common element, however — the recognition and encouragement of independent filmmaking. And it was quite an innovative notion at the time.

During the subsequent 20 years, of course, the festival has gained credibility from, and given credibility to, the independent film movement, providing debut showcases for such Oscar-winners as “When We Were Kings,” “Shine.” “The Usual Suspects,” “The Trip to Bountiful” and “Melvin and Howard,” as well as jump-starting the careers of Quentin Tarantino (“Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction”), Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” “Chasing Amy”), Steven Soderbergh (“sex, lies and videotape”) and the godfather of independent filmmakers, John Sayles (“Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Lone Star”), among others.

But it all began in 1978 with some 65 movies being shown over seven days in Salt Lake City’s Trolley Corners theaters. They were primarily golden oldies (with an Americana theme, emphasizing Westerns). In fact, there were only six independent films in competition — plus two shown out of competition — selected from a mere 25 submissions from around the country.

This year, 103 feature-length films will be screened, as well as 67 shorts — virtually all of them independents. They were selected from 1,300 submissions. There are 32 movies in two independent competitions — 16 dramatic (fictional) films and 16 documentaries. And there are no golden oldies.

The genesis was inspired by the success of a Salt Lake movie festival mounted in 1976 to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial. It was formulated by the late John Earle, who was head of the Utah Film Commission; Sterling Van Wagenen, a BYU film-theater professor and filmmaker; and local artist/aspiring filmmaker Lawrence Smith.

The idea was to make it distinctly American, so they named it the Utah/U.S. Film Festival and put out a call across the country for low-budget, independent films to enter a competition.

     

Robert Redford, left, Sterling Van Wagenen (circa early 1980s)

“When we started the competition that year, it was just a sidebar to the original festival — we didn’t know it would become the heart or focal point of the festival,” said Smith, who now works for the Utah Film Commission.

A hint was offered by ticket sales, however, as the eight independent films being shown proved to be the most popular. “If you went back through that very first year’s box-office attendance, you’d find that those were the best-attended films at the festival,” Smith said. “They were unknown films that nobody had ever heard of, and it was presented as just an idea, really.

“It just opened the floodgates in a lot of ways.”

Twenty years later, Smith is still programming independent films for the festival and feeling quite gratified about how far the festival and the independent filmmaking movement have come. “I am tremendously proud of where this festival started and where it’s gone, what it’s committed to — and I really believe it has changed the landscape of American cinema,” Smith said. “Not by itself, of course, but in concert with other organizations and good filmmakers.

“But we helped get the world’s attention. And, really, we just happened to figure out something before everybody else did.”

Smith said Earle and Van Wagenen deserve much of the credit “for having the vision to embark on this sort of journey.” But the key element, he said, was hooking up with Robert Redford.

“That was the big-league move,” Smith said. “What a stroke of great fortune. He was so committed to all of this. And he still is. He was involved from day one, he was on the board of directors that first year — and he was the big draw, of course.”

Redford, whose film “Jeremiah Johnson” was one of several “Old West” films screened during the festival, also took part on a panel, fielding questions from an audience of 600 during a discussion about the future of Westerns.

Smith said Redford’s participation gave the festival immediate credibility. “I invoked his name often. I had to. That’s the way I got my foot in the door. He gave us the magic keys to the kingdom. And, whether he knows it or not, I had no scruples about it — it didn’t bother me a bit to get into a conversation with somebody and drop his name to get financial help or logistical support for the festival.”

The following year, the Utah/U.S. Film Festival was streamlined a bit. It was shortened to five days, took place a month later — in October, so as not to compete with the Utah State Fair — and was moved to the (now defunct) Elks Theater, with some screenings held in the Salt Lake Arts Center auditorium. The theme for 1979 was “The Landscapes of the Mind: Fear and Fantasy,” offering an eclectic mix of older movies, along with a smattering of independents, about 60 in all. But independent submissions had dropped off a bit; only 21 entries came in. Still, there were five films in the competition, with three more shown out of competition.

     

There was no festival in the fall of 1980, as the event slipped into January of 1981. The name was changed to the United States Film and Video Festival, and the event was expanded to include experimental video.

But the biggest change was leaving Salt Lake City for Park City, and the festival really began to take shape.

“In the first two years, if we had tried to do strictly an independent film festival, we wouldn’t have had enough films,” Smith said. “Really, the modern festival was created in a sense in ’81, when we moved to Park City. We put it in the wintertime and devoted the entire program to independent filmmaking, formed a documentary program. …

“We were on our way after the first year, but this is when we really figured it out.”

Since then it has grown considerably, of course, weathering uncertainty and change, especially in those early years when funding was extremely difficult. The experimental “Video” emphasis lasted four years, waning as more immediate outlets were made available to those working on tape, primarily cable television and the home-video industry.

Then, in 1984, Sundance took over management of the ’85 festival, giving it a stability and industry foothold that solidified the dream that Smith, Van Wagenen and Earle had begun all those years before.

Though more sidebar programs have been created since then, opening the festival to international films and broadening the arena for American independents, it has essentially remained true to its roots.

It has quite simply become America’s premiere showcase for domestic independent filmmaking.

And it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

AS A FOOTNOTE, Smith has remained an active festival participant over the past two decades and continues to help program the festival’s independent competitions each year. He also continues to work as an artist and has started making short films of his own.

Van Wagenen was the festival director for its maiden voyage in 1978 and remained active in its further development for several years, initially as a board member and later as an executive with the Sundance Institute. More recently, he has gone on to become a respected filmmaker in his own right, producing “The Trip to Bountiful,” which opened the 1985 festival (and went on to win an Oscar for Geraldine Page), and directing the fine period drama “Alan & Naomi,” which was released nationally in 1992 (and is available on video).

John Earle remained active with the festival as director of the Utah Film Commission until his untimely death in 1985. The 1988 festival was dedicated to his memory.