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Sundance 2010: Festival says it wants to change

January 21, 2010 |  5:50 pm

Redford

Sundance Film Festival organizers pulled a Domino's Pizza on Thursday afternoon, saying that they'd failed in some respects over the last few years and vowing to improve.

Festival founder Robert Redford took the stage at the festival's opening news conference and offered a notable, if somewhat general, mea culpa. "I felt we were sliding. We were beginning to flat line and we needed a fresh approach." Redford didn't elaborate on what specifically he felt was needed, but the news conference went on to cover everything from John Cooper taking over as festival director to Sundance's increased emphasis this year on micro-budgeted films.

The annual press conference, at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street, is usually more a place of generalities than controversies. But it can offer hints about the direction of the festival, and organizers this year suggested they wanted to plunge into the future by returning to what they've done well in the past. Redford, citing a T.S. Eliot poem that one should "return to the place we first started but see it for the first time," put a finer point on it. "We're going back to our roots with fresh new voices."

To the extent that means first-time filmmakers, the festival is delivering on its promise, although it's worth noting that a number of big stars and Sundance mainstays -- many of whom are bigger stars than when they first started coming here, and include personalities such as Mark Ruffalo, Melissa Leo, Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman -- also will be very much in evidence in Park City (along with straight-up A-listers such as Kristen Stewart, Natalie Portman and Jessica Alba).

Theater In addition to the low-budget films, the festival also will be offering a healthy dose of street cred. A Banksy documentary will be making its debut on Sunday, while Leon Gast's documentary about early-days paparazzo Ron Galella, "Smash His Camera" (mention of which evoked an entertaining digression from Redford on the time the actor eluded him on the New York set of "Three Days of the Condor"), also plays the festival.

And controversy was likely to follow Reed Cowan's Mormon church documentary "8: The Mormon Proposition." Redford said he was not necessarily expecting protests from Mormon groups for the documentary, which is thought to be critical of the Mormon church, but was ready for it just the same. "Last year [after the passage of Proposition 8, a cause in which the Mormon Church was active] we were getting accusations that were flat-out ridiculous," he said. "We'll have the same attitude as we did last year: The festival doesn't take sides politically."

Conf In talking about the new direction, Redford acknowledged Cooper predecessor Geoff Gilmore with a series of compliments that nonetheless also validated their decision to part ways. "Geoff did an amazing job," he said. "He's passionate and extremely articulate and a great lover of film. But it was simply a time for fresh new blood. You have to rejuvenate," he said, adding, that such a decision "just happened to coincide with Geoff's need to move on."

With Cooper making his debut as festival director, the news conference wandered into themes that have recurred over the last few months, particularly the creation of the low-budget Next section. "We've been showing these kinds of films for years, but we thought it was time to carve out a section for it," he said.

As he laid out the new plans, however, Cooper also offered his own admission. "There's a schizophrenia to talk about the old and new when I was here all these years," he said. "If there were problems with the festival I was probably part of them."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photos, from top: Robert Redford at the Egyptian Theater in Park City, Utah; Redford in sunglasses, with designer Kenneth Cole, who's looking at Redford, and volunteers outside the theater; John Cooper and Redford. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times