Is Sundance No Longer Championing Indies?

Anubhuti Kumar

The beginning of each year brings with it snow, New Year’s resolutions and the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance is the largest and probably most widely recognized independent film festival in the United States, with nearly 50,000 people in attendance annually in the past few years.

In August 1978, the festival was born in Salt Lake City, Utah as the first film festival in the U.S., and to this day is hosted in the same place. Sterling Van Wagenen, who served as the head of Robert Redford’s company Wildwood, founded the festival along with John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania. The original goal of the festival was to showcase only American-made films, and the first year’s lineup included iconic works like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Midnight Cowboy” and “Deliverance,” the last of which went on to be nominated and win multiple Oscars.

Robert Redford chaired the first festival with the aim of displaying to the country the potential and power of independent movies and widening the audience that independent movies receive. Along with this, since Redford called Utah home, he was eager to encourage more filmmaking and filmmakers in Utah.   

1991 marked the first festival under its new name: Sundance. Though one of the founding drives for the festival was to showcase American films, it has since become a launching platform for both domestic and international works, with competitive categories for both. It has expanded into international territory in recent years, hosting festivals during the summer in London and also in Hong Kong in October.

Recently, Sundance has shown movies like “Little Miss Sunshine,” “(500) Days of Summer,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Whiplash.” It has also launched the careers of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell and Steven Soderbergh. Sundance movies go on to be box office hits and Oscar darlings, a change in the norm for small budget, independent movies. 

As Sundance has grown in recent decades, the festival’s founders like Redford have reached an interesting paradox. With so many indie movies launching into the mainstream after screening at the festival, money has poured into it along with support from studios. Redford himself has voiced concern about not wanting to “chase the money.” The festival has done its dues to bring indie movies to a wider audience, giving audiences movies about topics which have rarely been seen on film before. At the same time, there is concern that Sundance might be becoming more and more commercialized, presenting larger movies that in fact keep smaller films from being screened around the country.

The Sundance Film Festival has become synonymous with independent movies around the country and even around the world. But as it becomes bigger, even more widely known and commercial, it risks losing what made it unique in the first place: the fact that it presented small budgeted movies by unestablished filmmakers with little support who still manage to create work that is interesting, different and enthralling.

Email Anubhuti Kumar at [email protected]

Check out the rest of the Arts Issue here.

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