The legendary actor takes the stage to confront the festival's critics.
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21 Jan 2011 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:00 PM

SUNDANCE: Robert Redford was a little late to his own party on the opening day of the 30th Sundance Film Festival. The not-quite-packed Egyptian theater on Park City's quaint/posh Main St—the same one where every screening was held when the festival started—had begun to sweat through their puffy coats by the time he took the stage along with festival director John Cooper and Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam. He began his remarks, which were for the most part addressed to a very specific point in front of his shoes, with a brief history of Sundance, the dream. First of all, it turns out, Sundance isn't Sundance at all. Redford made a point of clarifying that the actual Sundance is about 40 miles away, an enclave far too small to host what the festival has become.

And what is that? Over the past ten years, the Sundance Film Festival's reputation has taken a beating that tends to vary in intensity from year to year but always involves the same one-two punch: With big studios shouldering onto the field, it's no longer an incubator of independent cinema; and, even worse, those studios trade on the festival's indie credibility to manufacture hype for their lower-end films. Redford took pains to pre-empt that line of accusation, describing the festival's origins as a screenwriting lab, and the intuitive growth that led to a showcase for those same artists Sundance nurtured. From there the festival began accepting international submissions, and Sundance became a brand that launched a television channel and now even two pilot cinemas.

Redford had to compete with the constant threshing of camera shutters whenever he spoke, and he was the obvious target of all of the questions his opening remarks couldn't quite stave off. There's a delicate balance between creating the kind of artistic community Redford spoke so passionately about and the ambition to extend that community—especially when it is inextricably linked with the celebrity circus—and Sundance-watchers seem to love needling him about it. An Associated Press reporter spoke of anonymous actors who confessed to her that they wouldn't return to the festival because it was too “commercial.” Redford was diplomatic, but Cooper lamented that the “riff raff”—independent marketers who clog the streets—would probably return this year. For my first year at the festival, I was told by veterans to leave ample room in my suitcase, not for the kidnapped body of Paul Rudd—as I presumed—but for swag, the free crap handed out by marketers who are more and more part of the Sundance experience.

It's a natural consequence, in this unnaturally commercial marketplace, for success to lead to commercial proliferation. Redford captured the paradox by suggesting that Sundance became successful precisely because they were programming only non-commercial films. He says that hasn't changed, but his efforts in other directions—such as the New Frontiers showcase, which he likens to art installations rather than films—suggests an attempt to counterbalance, say, the latest Kevin Smith opus.

There is also, he said, a downside to what made Sundance such a hot ticket in the indie-mad 1990s: Buzz. Buzzzzz buzz buzz buzz. “Buzz can be dangerous,” Redford said, “because buzz can turn into a cold fish.” When asked to name his favorite films that were never picked up for distribution he demurred, saying there were too many, and that with 10 000 submissions (a record high this year), there are bound to be more and more “orphans,” as he called them, even among the films that are accepted to the festival.

And yet the push for growth continues. The final question came from a reporter from the Sydney Morning Herald, who noted Australia's rising interest in Sundance before wondering about plans for international expansion. In fact the conference was an opportunity for Redford to announce the Sundance Institute's plans for a new screenwriting lab in India, one of several around the world. More films, more submissions—more rejections? With the progressive Sundance seeming to move toward an old-fashioned model of vertical integration—70 years ago it was not uncommon for a studio to handle creating, distributing and exhibiting their own films—perhaps there is hope for the hordes of Sundance graduates looking for a break, or even just some buzz.