Wirth Watching -- The History of the Sundance Film Festival

It all began as the United States Film Festival in 1978

PARK CITY, Utah (ABC4 Utah) - The Sundance film festival starts this Thursday. And Hollywood and the world will turn to park city. It's an amazing story with humble beginnings some 39 years ago.

Back in 1978 Utah officials and some industry folks thought a film festival might be a good idea. It was called the United States Film Festival in its first years.

The festival was founded on the vision of showcasing creative independent films of the era. Such as the 1980 classic ‘The Coat Hanger Massacre’.

That year, 1980, the festival moved to Park City from Salt Lake City in hopes to capture visitors in the resort town. It was an ambitious undertaking. Who would even have imagined 40,000 visitors would someday crowd into Utah for the festival.

Back in those days. One man watched all the submissions and picked the two dozen or so films to showcase. Today there are about 12000 submissions.

Robert Redford has been with it all, since it’s humble beginnings, as the festival chairperson. His Sundance Institute rescued the fledgling festival in 1985. A staff of 13 conducted the festival in two Park City theaters at that time.

In a 1987 interview Robert Redford said, “I think Park City is a good place to have it because it’s got room for growth although they’ve got to upgrade their facilities a little.”

In 1989 the Sundance Film Festival screened the independent film ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ and from then on the festival would never be the same.

Even though the spotlight was now on Sundance as the film world looked for the next hit, Robert Redford reminded all that Sundance was still dedicated to the independent film maker. Redford said, “The tendency is to want to reach out and become the Cannes Film Festival which I think is a big mistake. Once you do that, it’s like opening chain restaurants you begin to lose quality.”

In 1991 the festival officially changed its name to the Sundance Film Festival. Success meant a much bigger festival. But it also meant a bigger cost for the Sundance Institute.

Redford said, “We're not planning to do anything different. The programing, if you look at, is staying exactly the way it was. If anything it takes on a more of an element of risk and experiment as we are committed to that.”

The festival now was in Salt Lake City as well as Park City. And 1994 saw the world premiere of the hit ‘Four Weddings and A Funeral’.

Utah Governor, Mike Leavitt, said “It gives an opportunity to show that Utah is a world class state in the arts.”

There is no question that the state film folks couldn't have asked for more than Sundance. By that time in 1994, the crowds, the stars and the parties all became world famous.

The State Film Commission threw a closing night party in 1994. That party was very important. And I found it a lot of fun. Utah Film Commission Chair, Leigh Von der Esch, said, “I can’t buy a marketing event in Hollywood which would duplicate what I can show in my own state.”

The state knew deals would be arranged over perfectly arranged appetizers & entrees. Yes, it was all part of Sundance. And it was all part of Hollywood.

And in it all, there were still independent film makers doing what was their passion.

In looking at the history, one must respect Robert Redford and his vision. It was never about the star gazing and the Hollywood scene. It is what started in 1978, Independent film and idea to show those films in Utah.

The festival will run 10 days and takes place in Park City, Salt Lake City, and at the Sundance Mountain screening room.


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