History of the Sundance Film Festival

History, Part 2

The third festival kicked off with a larger program of independent films than ever before; the slate reportedly expanded at the suggestion of program director Lory Smith, who pointed out that independent films were considerably cheaper to show because, unlike Hollywood films, it wasn't necessary to pay rental fees to screen them. The 1981 festival also brought another name change for the event when it became the United States Film and Video Festival. The word 'video' was added because the board of directors felt it was important to be inclusive of this new visual medium, even though the festival wasnít actually able to program any videos that year.

At the time, it appeared that the third United States Film and Video Festival was a resounding success. However, after the curtain fell for the first time in Park City, it became apparent that although many films had drawn record audiences, heavy snowfalls during the event had brought the overall attendance down. But perhaps a more worrying discovery for the festival management and directors was the fact that the event had managed to slide further into the red to the tune of about $100,000. While most people involved were keen for the festival to continue, there was pressure from some factions within the organisation to abandon the focus on independent films in favour of screening more glamorous Hollywood pictures, which some believed would help attract sponsors. Fortunately, this never came to pass as financial support for the next festival was ultimately secured through the Utah Film Commission, a couple of key donors, and a line of credit with a local bank (personally signed for by the festivalís board). This allowed plans to move forward for the fourth annual United States Film and Video Festival in 1982.

Park City was kind to the young event in its fourth year. The snowfalls were mercifully light, preventing the attendance problems of the previous year. The lack of snow also meant that ski-visitor numbers were significantly down, so for the first time, the locals viewed the festival as a positive thing for the town. In fact, the visitor numbers generated by the festival helped take the edge off what had otherwise been a disastrous ski season so far that year.

The 1982 festival also saw the program expand yet again. The documentary competition had its own section for the first time, a collection of short films was included, and to support the video component of the event's title, a program was added to highlight video art, video documentaries, and movies made for television (the latter was a slightly odd addition because most TV movies were shot on film at that time). All in all, the 1982 festival ended up being the most successful to date, with box-office numbers up on previous years, significant progress toward reducing the debt, and the widest range of films screened yet. The video program, however, proved to be disappointing and was dropped for the 1984 event, even though the festival held on to its 'and Video' moniker for another year.

The next two years, 1983 and 1984, proved pivotal for the festival as it firmly cemented its feet on the national film map and, more importantly, in the minds of the press. Despite extremely tight funding, the programs consistently rewarded attendees with a broad range of independent films, supported by the more glamorous premieres and retrospectives. However, debt continued to plague the festival, and after the 1984 event, dissention was rife amongst the management and the board of directors, threatening to scuttle the festival altogether.

In 1985, salvation came from amongst the festival's own, so to speak, as the event moved under the wing of the fledgling Sundance Institute for the first time. Several years before, in late 1979, many festival staff members and film associates had joined Robert Redford at his ranch to take part in a planning meeting for what became the Sundance Institute. The two organisations therefore had a natural connection from the start; the case for Sundance taking over management of the festival seemed to be persuasive for all concerned. From the Institute's point of view, one of its key initiatives was to develop new outlets for independent films and running a high-profile festival was clearly a powerful weapon to add to its arsenal. From the Festival's point of view, it made sense to be part of an organisation which could provide year-round staffing, financial backing, and an extensive network of contacts.

To help move the two organisations toward this holy matrimony, Utah Film Commissioner John Earle and festival program director Lory Smith convinced Sterling van Wagenen (at that point the Institute's executive director) that it would be in everyone's best interests for Sundance to take over the festival. The festival board was initially lukewarm to the idea, but some impressive statesmanship from Earle and Smith, as well as Van Wagenen securing Redford's support for the decision, ultimately brought the directors around.

Under the sponsorship of the Sundance Institute, the 1985 United States Film Festival presented more than 80 features, including, for the first time, a slate of international films. The seventh festival also witnessed the arrival of the first generation of true superstars of the independent film world: the Coen brothers' debut film Blood Simple walked away with the Grand Jury Prize, and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise impressed the dramatic competition jury enough to earn a Special Jury Prize. Festival attendance in 1985 was also up, doubling the previous year's figures, and as part of the move to a year-round management structure, Van Wagenen appointed Tony Safford, formerly with the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, as the new festival program director.

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