10 Things You Might Not Know About the Sundance Film Festival
By Tara Aquino
Everyone who’s anyone in the film industry is in Park City, Utah right now, enjoying the best that independent cinema has to offer. From Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women to Nate Parker’s much-talked-about The Birth of a Nation, this year’s Sundance Film Festival is bubbling over with gems that are certain to be contenders for next year’s awards season. But of course, that’s nothing new. This is, after all, the legendary film fête that launched the careers of everyone from Steven Soderbergh to Quentin Tarantino. That said, let’s look beyond the surface of what’s common knowledge. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the Sundance Film Festival.
1. ROBERT REDFORD DIDN’T FOUND THE FESTIVAL.
Let’s put this to rest: Robert Redford didn’t create the Sundance Film Festival. In fact, the originally-titled Utah/US Film Festival—which took place in Salt Lake City—was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen and John Earle as a way to introduce moviemakers to Utah as a possible filming location. Once created, Van Wagenen brought his cousin’s husband on board as chairman—and that man was Robert Redford.
In 1980, the festival relocated to Park City (reportedly at the suggestion of director Sydney Pollack). In 1985, Redford’s Sundance Institute took over the festival and changed its name to the United States Film Festival. In 1990, it was renamed the Sundance Film Festival.
2. THE YEAR BEFORE STEVEN SODERBERGH WON THE AUDIENCE AWARD FOR SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE, HE WAS A VOLUNTEER AT THE FESTIVAL.
Now here’s a Cinderella story: In 1988, Steven Soderbergh was a struggling filmmaker who wanted to be in on the action, which is why he volunteered in Park City as a driver for festival-goers. One year later he was traversing Main Street once again, only this time as the writer-director of one of that year’s most buzzed-about films, sex, lies, and videotape, now credited (as noted in /Film) for pioneering the 1990s American independent film boom. The film would go on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes later that year and was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 1990.
3. APPROXIMATELY 80 PERCENT OF SUNDANCE FILMS GET A DISTRIBUTION DEAL.
While chances are slim of actually getting your movie into the lineup at Sundance (short filmmakers alone have a success rate of about 0.74 percent), once you’re in, the odds are pretty high that you’ll walk away with some sort of distribution deal. As reported by No Film School, researchers at GoWatchIt.com have found that four out of five films are actually sold, thanks to digital platforms and more outlets for viewers to access the movies.
4. KEVIN SMITH BOUGHT HIS OWN FILM AT SUNDANCE.
It’s no secret that Sundance made Kevin Smith. His debut feature, the cult hit Clerks, premiered at Sundance in 1994, where it won the Filmmakers Trophy. In 2011, Smith took center stage again, this time with his film Red State. According to /Film, after screening his movie, the director used his post-Q&A time to talk about the “problems of modern movie distribution” and announced that he would be self-distributing the movie under his Smodcast Pictures banner.
5. NATE PARKER’S
THE BIRTH OF A NATION
IS SUNDANCE’S BIGGEST SALE EVER.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
Actor/writer/director/producer Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation couldn’t come at a better time. Amidst the many conversations regarding the lack of diversity in Hollywood, Parker’s drama—based on the story of Nat Turner, the American-born slave who led the country’s biggest slave rebellion—sold to Fox Searchlight for a recording-breaking $17.5 million. Critics are already touting it as an early front-runner for next year’s Best Picture Oscar, as well as Parker for Best Actor. According to The Hollywood Reporter, only two festival films have ever topped The Birth of a Nation's price tag: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villeneuve’s Story of Your Life, both of which were sold at Cannes for $20 million—before they were even made.
6. SUNDANCE STAFFERS WALK AN AVERAGE OF EIGHT MILES PER DAY DURING THE FESTIVAL.
And you thought standing in line was tiring! With an average of 60,000 people wandering around town every day during the festival, transportation can be a bit of a nightmare. Which makes walking the best—and often quickest—alternative for Sundance’s employees, who walk an average of eight miles per day up and down Main Street.
7. IT WASN’T UNTIL 2004 THAT A MOVIE STARRING ROBERT REDFORD PLAYED AT THE FESTIVAL.
Despite Robert Redford being chairman of the festival since its inception, it took over two decades for the festival to program a film that he was actually starring in. According to the Columbia Tribune, Redford was reluctant to show his film, the action-drama The Clearing, fearing that it was a conflict of interest. However, Sundance's then-festival director Geoffrey Gilmore insisted on showing the low-budget flick, which he considered a perfect fit for the lineup.
8. BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, WHICH SCREENED IN THE WORLD CINEMA SECTION, BECAME THE FIRST WESTERN FILM TO PLAY ON NORTH KOREAN TELEVISION.
Out of all the films to ever screen at Sundance—or just, you know, in history in general—North Korea chose Bend It Like Beckham, Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 Sundance hit, as the first Western film to ever play over the country’s airwaves.
9. ONE-THIRD OF THE FESTIVAL’S ATTENDEES LIVE IN UTAH.
Though it may seem like a total Hollywood invasion, 33 percent of Sundance attendees are Utah residents. Then comes Hollywood: 14.7 percent of the audience is made up of Californians, while 4.9 percent make the trek from New York.
10. ELUSIVE GRAFFITI ARTIST BANKSY PAINTED THE STREETS OF PARK CITY THE SAME YEAR HE PREMIERED EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP.
Would you expect anything less? As captured by The New York Times, Banksy lit up the cloudy skies and snow-covered streets with splashes of hidden paintings around random turns in Park City in 2010. In 2014, a vandal who defaced one of Bansky’s long-standing pieces was sentenced to 100 hours of community service and ordered to pay thousands of dollars in restitution to the owners of the Cunningham Building, where the Banksy painting was displayed.