The question is put to Robert Redford: Are the movies being screened at the Sundance Film Festival becoming too commercial? It is a complaint heard often around this snow-dusted resort town that annually plays host to America's largest celebration of independent filmmaking.
Sundance, go the arguments, is getting too big and too market driven; the films are too glossy and increasingly feature big-name stars; Miramax and Fox Searchlight and now even HBO are using the festival as a launching pad for their theatrical releases and even cable TV movies.
Redford, seated in a rustic banquet room on the second floor of his upscale Main Street restaurant, Zoom, doesn't miss a beat: "No."
He then points to some of this year's films as examplesof experimental filmmaking that are far from the mainstream of Hollywood, films such as Gus Van Sant's "Gerry," or Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project," which opened the festival, or John Malkovich's "The Dancer Upstairs."
"Gerry" is an experimental film about a pair of friends who become lost in the New Mexico desert; "Laramie" concerns a theater troupe that descends upon the Wyoming college town after Matthew Shepard's murder; and "Dancer" involves a South American detective on the trail of a guerrilla leader.
"You can hardly say those are too commercial," Redford said. "They're all risk-takers.
"It's not so much what we do because we're nonprofit. We are not forced to program for commercial purposes. Commerciality is not a factor in our programming. It's diversity, uniqueness of the vision and the independent voice and the talent of the film.
"What has happened is that, one, more filmmakers are getting funded before they come here. In the early years, nobody had any money. They just managed somehow to make their films and brought them here to show so that somebody could exhibit them.
"Secondly, the quality of independent films has naturally evolved to a much higher grade," he added. "You've got young film students now that get into film with video cameras and recorders, now digital [cameras] and computers that are far advanced at an earlier age."
Redford said the more accomplished a film looks when it arrives at Sundance, the more people think it looks like a Hollywood film.
"So, people say, 'Oh, I see, you're going commercial.' No, it's just getting better. Also, you have to be honest, a lot of filmmakers would love to be in Hollywood. But you talk to a Sherman Alexie ('Smoke Signals') and say, 'Sherman, how was it when you went to Hollywood?' and he'll tell you why somebody should not be taken there."
It has been two decades since Redford founded Sundance. At the time, he would have been happy to see it last 10 years.
"When I started this thing, it was to be a side thing to the rest of my career," he said. "I just decided to stop my career for a year.... Then it grew."
Redford said at the time Sundance was a new idea, but like other new ideas he had researched, he knew that itwould likely just run its course or get co-opted by a corporate hand.
"I just assumed that if we succeeded, and I didn't know if we would, if we were to survive, you've got to be good for 10 years. What happened, it kind of grew itself and we realized, 'Oh, it's because we're [keeping up] with the change' in the independent film world."
Documentaries Grow in Popularity
In recent years, some of the better films shown at Sundance have been documentaries. As a result, Redford this week used the festival's massive media presence to announce that beginning later this year, the Sundance Channel, of which he is a founder and creative director, would launch a network devoted exclusively to documentary films.
The new network will be owned and operated by Sundance Channel, and will show independent nonfiction films, shorts and features, from the U.S. and abroad. The Sundance Channel has about 14 million subscribers and is available in 55 million homes.
Redford says that if documentaries have been stigmatized by viewers, it is because for too long they were equated with what's on PBS, "which is, 'See it because it's good for you.' It has this kind of medicinal ring to it like you're supposed to see it because it was good for you. So, of course, they don't want to. If they don't classify it as entertainment, they classify it as a classroom activity."
Redford said he has made documentaries, narrated several and produced several in the 1970s. Back then, they usually amounted to talking heads, but documentaries have improved in recent years so that they often rival feature films for entertainment value. And the issues got edgier and riskier.
"It isn't just my own taste," Redford said. "I'm now hearing more from audiences who come out of our festival saying 'You know what, I like the documentaries almost more than the main features.'"
Creating Support for Nonfiction Films
The dilemma for documentary filmmakers is that very few of their works are ever released theatrically. A festival spokesman estimated that of 500 American documentaries made each year, only 10 to 20 reach local theaters.
At the same time the Sundance documentary channel is being formed, Redford said the Sundance Institute is also establishing a documentary fund to help finance the films.
The fund was made possible through financier George Soros with a $4.6-million grant from the New York-based Open Society Institute. The grants had previously been funded by the Soros Documentary Fund.
Under Sundance, filmmakers can apply for up to $50,000 in grants to complete a documentary in progress or up to $15,000 as seed money for a new one.
In the end, he noted, not only will there be seed money for the documentaries, but also a means of promoting and exhibiting them.
"And I guess we probably won't be happy until we get our Sundance cinemas started and we'll be able to exhibit them."
Redford said the plan to invest in theaters is running a little behind. Acknowledging that theater chains are declaring bankruptcy these days, he smiled.
"Somehow, the worst of times is our best of times. Everything we started in the past has been at the worstpossible time."