Sundance Film Festival

From New World Encyclopedia
Sundance Film Festival
Sundance Film Festival.jpg
LocationPark City, Utah, U.S.
Sundance Resort, Utah, U.S.
FoundedAugust 1978 (as Utah/US Film Festival)
Founded byJohn Earle
Sterling Van Wagenen
Hosted bySundance Institute

The Sundance Film Festival (formerly Utah/US Film Festival, then US Film and Video Festival) is an annual film festival organized by the Sundance Institute. It takes place each January in Park City, Utah; Salt Lake City, Utah; and at the Sundance Resort (a ski resort near Provo, Utah). The largest independent film festival in the United States, it acts as a showcase for new work from American and international independent filmmakers. Its connection with Robert Redford, who played the Sundance Kid in the iconic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, helped attract interest in the event in its early years.

The festival has become the premiere forum for independent film in the United States, rating as one of "The Big Five" festivals, along with Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Toronto International Film Festival. The festival consists of competitive sections for American and international dramatic and documentary films, both feature films and short films, and a group of out-of-competition sections including Sundance Kids, which screens family-friendly independent movies as part of its mission to introduce films made outside of the Hollywood system to a wider audience.


1978: Utah/US Film Festival

The festival began in Salt Lake City in August 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival in an effort to attract more filmmakers to Utah.[1] It was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen, a Brigham Young University film school graduate, and John Earle of the Utah Film Commission.

Van Wagenen and Earle's vision for the festival was threefold: Earle in particular wanted to hold a national event which would attract more filmmakers to Utah. The second goal was to present a retrospective of American films with high-profile panel discussions; simply put, "to show old movies and have famous people talk about them."[2] Also, they intended to create a competition where films made outside the Hollywood system could be showcased in the hope of bringing them to a wider audience.[3]

Robert Redford became involved and having his name associated with the event attracted great interest. The 1978 festival featured films such as Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, and Sweet Smell of Success. Additionally, eight independent features from largely unknown filmmakers were screened in the inaugural competition, garnering greater success at the box office than the retrospective films.[3]

In 1979, Sterling Van Wagenen left to head up the first-year pilot program of what became the Sundance Institute, and James W. Ure took over briefly as executive director, followed by Cirina Hampton Catania. More than 60 films were screened at the festival that year, and panels featured many well-known Hollywood filmmakers. Again, the independent films were popular and the festival made a profit.[4]

1981: US Film and Video Festival

Mary G. Steiner Egyptian Theatre, in Park City, Utah, is one of the festival's oldest and most recognizable venues

In 1981, the festival moved to Park City, Utah, and changed the dates from September to January. The move from late summer to midwinter was done by the executive director Susan Barrell after Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, who was on the board of the festival, suggested that running a film festival in a ski resort during winter would draw more attention from Hollywood, pointing out that it would be "the only film festival in the world held in a ski resort during ski season, and Hollywood would beat down the door to attend."[4]

The festival's name was changed again, becoming the US Film and Video Festival, adding "video" to be inclusive of the new medium. However, the video program proved unsuccessful and was dropped in 1984 event. The festival as a whole solidified its status as an important event in the world of film, attracting a broad range of independent films as well as retrospectives and exciting premieres. Unfortunately it was not so successful financially, and its future was in doubt.

1984: Sundance

The future of the festival was assured in 1985, when its management was taken over by the Sundance Institute, which had its beginnings at a planning meeting in 1979 on Robert Redford's ranch. John Earle and festival program director Lory Smith convinced Sterling van Wagenen (who at that time was executive director of the Sundance Institute) to proceed with the take over as a benefit to both groups: The Institute would be able to fulfill its goal of providing new outlets for independent films, and the Festival would benefit from year-round staffing, financial backing, and an extensive network of contacts.[5]

The 1985 festival introduced the first generation of true superstars of the independent film world: the Coen brothers were awarded the Grand Jury Prize for their debut film Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch so impressed the jury that it earned a Special Jury Prize. The festival continued to grow and attract attention and recognition, becoming the premiere forum for independent film in the United States, on a par with Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Toronto International Film Festival (The Big Five).[6]

In 1991, the festival was officially renamed the Sundance Film Festival, after Redford's character the Sundance Kid from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.[7]

Growth of the festival

Sundance at the Mary G. Steiner Egyptian Theatre

The festival has changed over the decades from a low-profile venue for small-budget, independent creators from outside the Hollywood system to a media extravaganza for Hollywood celebrity actors, paparazzi, and luxury lounges set up by companies not affiliated with Sundance. Festival organizers tried curbing these activities in recent years, beginning in 2007 with their ongoing Focus On Film campaign.[8]

Some of the more recent developments include gender diversity: In 2013 fully half of the official selection featured films made by women. That year was also the first time that the juries and audiences agreed on the same films: both Steve Hoover's Blood Brother and Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale each received the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, in the Documentary and Dramatic sections respectively.

Today the festival remains focused on showcasing the talents of America's independent filmmakers. Festival director, John Cooper, has said that the festival "will look to independent filmmakers and see what kinds of films they are making and how they're telling their stories, because that is what our mission is."[9]

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival was postponed in 2020 and was held virtually in 2021 and 2022. In 2023 the festival was scheduled to take place January 19–29, 2023, in person and online.

Program and Awards

The culmination of the Sundance Film Festival is the awards ceremony. Films in both the documentary and dramatic competition categories are eligible for a variety of prestigious awards bestowed by festival juries. In addition, audiences to vote for their favorites with five Audience Awards—given to one film in each of the four competition categories and the NEXT category—as well as the Festival Favorite Award, chosen from any feature category.[10]

Over the years, the festival has experimented with its structure to allow for increasing numbers of films, both international and from the US, being screened and the best way to categorize them. Today the festival consist of 12 competitive sections:[11]

  • US Dramatic / US Documentaries

These competitive sections showcase the best new work from American independent filmmakers in two categories: dramatic narrative films and feature-length documentaries. The competitions are restricted to American independent films which have their world premiere at Sundance.

  • World Dramatic / World Documentaries

In the early days of the festival the World Cinema sections were simply showcase programs, however in 2008 they were expanded into fully-fledged competitive events for non-American films in both dramatic and documentary categories.

  • Shorts

The Sundance Film Festival Shorts competition recognize new talent and experimentation in story-telling through this section for short films. There are five sub-sections including narrative shorts, animation, and documentary, as well as two specialty streams: a shorts version of the festival's fabled 'Midnight' slots, and a selection of experimental work from New Frontier.

  • Premieres / Documentary Premieres

Although the Festival's focus is primarily on newer independent filmmakers, Sundance has long recognised the contribution to the cinematic landscape made b. Created in the late 1990s, the Premieres section provides a platform for the festival to present films, in 'out of competition' showcase, by more established filmmakers who share the independent spirit. Films are included by invitation only and are normally selected on the basis of their compelling stories or innovative approaches.

  • NEXT

Included in the Sundance changes made in 2010, a new programming category titled "NEXT" (often denoted simply by the characters "<=>", which mean "less is more") was introduced to showcase innovative US films that are able to transcend the confines of an independent budget. This section provides a showcase for what the festival calls "Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to story-telling."

  • Spotlight

The Spotlight category features exceptional films which have already premiered before Sundance, but which the festival would still like to show.

  • Midnight

This section features late night screenings of films that provoke intense reaction from the audience and may become a new cult classic, like The Blair Witch Project which enjoyed a midnight screening at the 1999 festival. The program has a diverse range of films including gory horror, surreal drama, over-the-top comedies, and explicit animation.

  • New Frontier

New Frontier includes experimental film, media-based performances, and installations which involve the convergence of art and digital media. In recent years, VR and augmented reality story-telling have made this section particularly exciting.

  • From the Collection

In partnership with the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Sundance Collection is a film archive devoted to the restoration and preservation of independent cinema. Several films from the archive (usually newly preserved or restored works) are selected for special screenings in Park City during the festival.

  • Sundance Kids

Since 2014, the festival has shown family-friendly independent movies to help children develop appreciation for a different type of film than is generally advertised.

Spin-offs in other locations

Sundance London (2012– )

The first Sundance London was held in London from April 26 to 29, 2012; the first time it traveled outside the US. The majority of the film screenings, including the festival's premieres, were held within the Cineworld cinema at The O2 entertainment district.[12]

In a press statement given at the O2, Robert Redford said:

We are excited to partner with AEG Europe to bring a particular slice of American culture to life in the inspired setting of The O2, and in this city of such rich cultural history. [...] It is our mutual goal to bring to the UK, the very best in current American independent cinema, to introduce the artists responsible for it, and in essence, help build a picture of our country that is broadly reflective of the diversity of voices not always seen in our cultural exports.[12]

The four-day Sundance London ran successfully for three years at O2, but was cancelled in 2015. [13]

Sundance London returned to London in 2016, held at Picturehouse Central in London's West End, and continued there through 2019. However, it was postponed in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic[14]

It was not rescheduled until July 2021.[15] The festival continues to be held at the Picturehouse Central venue in London. The London edition provides a strong documentary offering, as well as following the Sundance tradition of supporting emerging voices in filmmaking. The Sundance Film Festival London Tour, first introduced in 2021, also continues with films shown in cinemas across the UK during the festival dates. [16]

Sundance Hong Kong (2014–)

Inaugurated in 2014, Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong is held at The Metroplex in Kowloon Bay each year. Explaining the reason for bringing the festival to Hong Kong Festival Director John Cooper noted:

In many ways, the expansion of our programs mirrors how international audiences are increasingly open to exploring American independent films. For a long time we’ve felt like the quality of work we show has the ability to travel overseas. In response to that, we’ve been actively looking for new ways to connect our filmmakers to audiences outside the U.S.[17]

The 2020 event in Hong Kong was postponed due to impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.[14]

Sundance at BAM

From 2006 through 2008, Sundance Institute collaborated with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on a special series of film screenings, performances, panel discussions, and special events bringing the institute's activities and the festival's programming to New York City.[18]

Notable filmmakers and films

Many notable independent filmmakers received their big break at Sundance, including Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky, and James Wan. The festival is also responsible for bringing wider attention to such films as Saw, Garden State, Super Troopers, The Blair Witch Project, Spanking the Monkey, Reservoir Dogs, Little Miss Sunshine, Donnie Darko, Napoleon Dynamite, and CODA.

At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, three films went on to garner eight Oscar nominations. Manchester by the Sea took the lead in Sundance-supported films with six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.[19] About 40 films that premiered at the festival were acquired by distributors, among them including Amazon, Netflix, Lionsgate, and Universal.[20]

CODA, written and directed by Sian Heder, became the first Sundance film to win an Oscar for Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards. [21]


  1. A Brief History Of Sundance BBC. Retrieved November 12, 2022.
  2. Lory Smith, Party in a Box: The Story of the Sundance Film Festival (Gibbs Smith Publishers, 1999, ISBN 978-0879058616).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Benjamin Craig, History of the Sundance Film Festival - Part 1 Sundance Guide. Retrieved November 12, 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Benjamin Craig, History of the Sundance Film Festival - Part 2 Sundance Guide. Retrieved November 12, 2022.
  5. Benjamin Craig, History of the Sundance Film Festival - Part 3 Sundance Guide. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  6. Emanuel Levy, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film (NYU Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0814751244).
  7. Festival History Sundance Institute. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  8. Sarah Jo Marks, Festival Focus: Sundance Film Festival International Documentary Association (IDA), May 1, 2007. Retrieved November 11, 2022.
  9. Benjamin Craig, History of the Sundance Film Festival - Part 8 Sundance Guide. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  10. The Sundance Film Festival: Awards & Juries Sundance Institute. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  11. Benjamin Craig, Structure of the Sundance Film Festival Sundance Guide. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  12. 12.0 12.1 Stephen Farmer, Robert Redford, Sundance Institute And Aeg Europe Launch Sundance London At The O2 Sundance Institute, March 15, 2011. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  13. Alex Ritman, Sundance London Canceled for 2015, Future Under Review Hollywood Reporter, January 16, 2015. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Naman Ramachandran, Coronavirus: Sundance Postpones London, Hong Kong Festivals Variety, March 25, 2020. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  15. 2021 Sundance Film Festival: London to Take Place 29 July–1 August at Picturehouse Central Sundance Institute, May 6, 2021. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  16. Sundance Film Festival: London Announces Biggest Line-up to Date Sundance Institute, April 25, 2022. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  17. Nate von Zumwalt, Sundance Film Festival Hong Kong Selects Premieres 8 Films-this-september Sundance Institute, July 31, 2014. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  18. Roger Armbrust, BAM Brings Sundance to NYC Backstage, November 5, 2019. Retrieved November 14, 2022.
  19. 8 Oscar Nominations for Films from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Sundance TV, January 24, 2017. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  20. Kevin Lincoln, The Complete List of Movies Sold at Sundance 2016, and Why Amazon and Netflix Went All Out Vulture, February 4, 2016. Retrieved November 15, 2022.
  21. How 'CODA' made history for the Sundance Film Festival with Best Picture Oscar win The Salt Lake City Tribune, March 27, 2022. Retrieved November 15, 2022.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anderson, John. Sundancing: Hanging Out And Listening In At America's Most Important Film Festival. Harper Paperbacks, 2000. ISBN 978-0380804801
  • Biskind, Peter. Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film. Simon & Schuster, 2005. ISBN 978-0684862583
  • Craig, Benjamin. Sundance – A Festival Virgin's Guide: Surviving and Thriving at America's Most Important Film Festival]. Cinemagine Media Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-0954173784
  • Levy, Emanuel. Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Film. NYU Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0814751244
  • Smith, Lory. Party in a Box: The Story of the Sundance Film Festival. Gibbs Smith Publishers, 1999. ISBN 978-0879058616

External links

All links retrieved February 26, 2023.


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