Sundance emperor Robert Redford delivered his annual State of the Festival address this afternoon, where the event's 25th anniversary collided with the bittersweet black hole better known as "now."
"If you have questions, don't ask them," Redford joked, joining fest director Geoff Gilmore for his opening-day welcome. It wasn't much different than last year's or the previous decade's for that matter, Redford's rambling, optimistic oratory only mildly complicated by a Sundance marketplace that contracted by two-thirds between 2007 and 2008.
"For us it's always been a long term view, starting with the fact: Would we survive?" he said, reflecting on Sundance's 25th anniversary, the date of which he acknowledged he couldn't even remember. "Frankly, I didn't know if we would. It was a risk. It was a new idea. Independent film was pretty much exclusively in the hands of the National Endowment of the Arts in the '80s. ... I saw it as a category that we might feed and expand into something with more mass appeal — as an adjunct to what the film business was at that time, which was called just strictly mainstream. On a personal note, I liked the idea of independence."
Moreover, Redford liked the idea of having a launching pad for the work coming out of the margins of the Sundance Institute labs. It was the canny branding trick that captivated the mainstream as much as Soderbergh, Tarantino or anyone else who broke out of Park City. And with the mainstream attraction came the "ambush marketers," Redford complained today, happy to see their own numbers narrow with the recession. "I always believed they would exhaust themselves, and that's beginning to happen. The swag bags had nothing to do with us. And now that's starting to recede."
But is that coveted mainstream — of which Sundance is now the begrudging flagship — a casualty of itself? Too many films, not enough outlets? An imbalance between art and commerce? "It's an interesting question," Gilmore said, "We walk lines, but we haven't changed our agenda. My [colleagues] are always debating what's commercial. The most frustrating thing that happens at Sundance from year to year is that someone tells you how wonderful a film is, but they can't take it out into the marketplace. And what we want to make sure is that the wonderful films that are at Sundance get taken out into that marketplace."
Redford also addressed speculation that Sundance might accept Abu Dhabi's invitation — and money — to launch an extension of the festival there. After noting that the Institute had cultivated work from the Middle East for years and now wanted to extend its mission, Redford waxed skeptical. "When you have too many cooks in the kitchen you're going to slow down the parade," he said, noting that he wanted the annex but hadn't advanced beyond informal discussions. "Right now we have too many cooks in the kitchen. Whether it'll resolve itself or not I can't say." If ever it were to be said, however, this would be the week to do it. Developing....