27 March 2012

Author Carl Hellier

The Sundance Film Festival is coming to London in April, signaling a change in direction for the festival. Sundance is the leading showcase for new films, blossoming directors and independent filmmakers, but has, until now, stuck to its mission statement of promoting strictly American cinema on very American soil. More importantly though, the move speaks to the importance of independent film festivals as a whole.

Sundance was born in August 1978 and started out as the Utah/US Film Festival as a vehicle designed to bring more filmmakers to Utah. Since being founded by Sterling Van Wagenen (then Wildwood colleague to Robert 'Horse Whisperer' Redford), the festival has gone on to become the largest independent film festival in the US. Its raison d'etre was to 'showcase strictly American-made films, highlight what the potential of independent film could be and to increase visibility for filmmaking in Utah'.

So why does it garner so much attention? I mean, you only have to look at the growing attendance of the Hollywood glitterati to know that it means something to be holed up in Utah during January. Well, tangibly, Sundance matters because of it's output. It may be surprising to some to learn that the festival gave big breaks to many household names such as Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh, who have all gone on challenge and delight our senses with filmmaking of the highest quality staying long in the memory.

Without Sundance's passion and drive to make independent movies more accessible, we would perhaps never have seen films like Reservoir Dogs, Garden State, The Blair Witch Project and Napoleon Dynamite - movies that in their own small way have shaped our tastes and expectations of what films can be when given to gifted writers, producers and directors whose singular passion is the art of creativity and not money.

Sundance is about creativity, ideas, and the motivation to share stories with people who will listen. Cynics can be quick to attack the 'independent' label - be it in clothing, music, food, art or film - and yes there are elements of the crushingly hip at work, but the values remain and are unchanged since 1978. It is non-profit and dedicated to developing it artists. And in the face of growing popularity and media glare, Sundance has sought to the redress balance, launching the 'Focus On Film' initiative in 2007 alongside creative protectionist programmes like NEXT, New Frontier and Park City at Midnight, to combat the advances of marketers and opportunists - all in the name of supporting creativity and the cultivation of burgeoning talent.

With the growth and continuing evolution of digital platforms, Sundance is in rude health and offers an insight into the opportunity for other festivals of the sort. Opening up these channels is allowing independent festivals to distribute and market their family and never before has there been such opportunity for us all to catch and bottle that magical piece of lightening that independent filmmaking can give us. London in April will be a special moment, a rare chance for us to be part of an institution, to take in a wonderful occasion, an honest cause and some bloody good films.