A picture of a freeway exit sign showing Park City

History of the Sundance Film Festival (Part 8)

By Benjamin Craig

< Back to Part 7: Would You Like Brand With That?

Ladies First

The 2013 festival brought with it a series of firsts for the festival. In a victory for gender diversity, it was the first year that fully half of the official selection featured films made by women, and it was also the first time in the festival history that the juries and audiences agreed on the same films. Traditionally, the jury awards favour most challenging films, whereas unaspiringly, the audience awards more crowd-pleasers. So the entire festival was stunned in 2013 when first, Steve Hoover's "Blood Brother" bagged both the Documentary Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, then second, when Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale" repeated the feat in the dramatic section. Richard Linklater was also back in Park City, presenting "Before Midnight", the third instalment of his genre-defining post-modern romance.

For 2014, the festival kicked off a range of celebrations for its official 30th anniversary. Although technically it was the event's 36th outing, the anniversary of the Sundance Institute taking the reins was chosen as the major milestone to observe. To celebrate, the festival screened a massive retrospective of most of its ground-breaking films from the past 30 years. These included "Little Miss Sunshine", "An Education", "Sex, Lies, and Videotape", "Reservoir Dogs", "The Cove", "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", "An Inconvenient Truth", "Precious", and of course, "Napoleon Dynamite". Alongside, another submissions record tumbled, with just over 12,200 films landing in the festival's inbox. Highlights included Damien Chazelle's stunning "Whiplash", Lenny Abrahamson's surreal comedy "Frank", and Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard's documentary about a day in the life of Nick Cave, "20,000 Days on Earth".

Today, the Sundance Film Festival continues to be the pre-eminent event of its type in America and is considered one of the top five film festivals in the world (alongside Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Berlin). Although the arrival of the new millennium bought with it fresh challenges for the festival management, such as overzealous, non-affiliated corporate brands attempting to cash in on the publicity, and an increasingly blurry line between studio and independent films, the festival remains firmly focused on showcasing the talents of America's independent filmmakers. Sundance is also trying to position itself to become, according to former director Geoffrey Gilmore, a "launch pad for English-language films." Current festival director, John Cooper, says that going forward, 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..." Meanwhile, Sundance continues to set attendance records (around 50,000 visitors in 2016), and submissions remain as high as ever (more than 12,300 in 2016) as the next generation of filmmakers try hard to grab a piece of the Sundance dream.

Front cover of Sundance - A Festival Virgin's Guide (3rd Edition), By Benjamin Craig

The essential handbook for filmmakers, film fans, and film industry professionals looking to attend the Sundance Film Festival. Available in paperback and digital formats.

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