The Sundance Film Festival: Where Skis Meets Cinema

The largest independent film festival in America is not hosted in New York City or Los Angeles. Rather, the Sundance Film Festival, which began in 1978 and attracted more than 70,000 attendees in 2017, is based out of Park City, Utah. Unknown filmmakers hoping to become the next Academy Award winners flock to Salt Lake City every winter to show Hollywood producers the film that could be the next box office hit.

America’s largest independent film festival, originally known as the U.S. Film Festival, brought more than $150 million in economic impact to Utah in 2017. In the same year, the Sundance Film Festival supported almost 3,000 jobs and attracted visitors from 46 states and 18 foreign countries. Incumbent Governor Gary R. Herbert, a longtime supporter of Sundance, proudly said that his state’s “collaboration with [the festival] highlights the exceptional cultural, recreational, tourism, and business opportunities available here in Utah.”

The founders of Sundance—Sterling Van Wagenen, John Earle, and Cirina Hampton Catania—envisioned an event that would attract independent filmmakers to Utah. They even convinced Robert Redford, an acclaimed actor who received an Academy Award nomination for his role in The Sting (1973), to serve as the festival’s first board chairman. But organizers struggled to turn a profit from the festival until 1981, when it was moved to Park City. There, the U.S. Film Festival became successful and changed its name to Sundance, after Redford’s character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which appeared at the festival in 1992 and has been named the “greatest independent film of all time,” was one of Sundance’s earliest success stories. Damien Chazelle, who won an Academy Award for Best Director for his film La-La Land (2016), made a breakthrough at Sundance in 2013, and Ryan Gosling had his adult acting career launched at the festival with Half Nelson’s 2006 premiere. Some box office hits and critically acclaimed films that Sundance has propelled to fame are The Blair Witch Project (1999), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Saw (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), and Whiplash (2014). As a result, over 4,000 feature-length films were submitted for consideration in 2017, but “only 113 feature films were selected to play at the festival.”

Despite the festival’s success, it disdains commercialism and does not want to become a playground for A-list actors or a venue that is overflowing with paparazzi. Although it is connected with Hollywood, Sundance enjoys its place in the intermountain community. Over the past two decades, nearly “20 million feet of 35mm film has been screened at the festival, [which] would stretch from New York City to Paris.” But the Sundance Institute does not have its vision set on New York City, Paris, Hollywood, or Cannes. It found its niche in Utah and longs to remain in the Beehive State.

Images

Park City, looking south. Before its transformation into a Hollywood-esque town, Park City was known for little more than mining.
Park City, looking south. Before its transformation into a Hollywood-esque town, Park City was known for little more than mining. Source: L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Brigham Young University. The C.R. Savage Collection. Call Number PH 500 34 2.
Robert Redford at an Event at the US Embassy in London
Robert Redford at an Event at the US Embassy in London Robert Redford, the main supporter of the Sundance Film Festival. The festival’s name comes from his Sundance Kid character. Source: Evans, JP, from Wikipedia. “Robert Redford,” available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Redford.
Park City Slopes
Park City Slopes On the slopes of the Park City Mountain Resort, with Park City in the distance. The founders moved Sundance to Park City because they assumed that larger crowds would attend if the festival were held in the winter at a ski resort. Source: Photograph by author.

Location

Metadata

Marc Jonathan Wein, Brigham Young University, “The Sundance Film Festival: Where Skis Meets Cinema,” Intermountain Histories, accessed June 23, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/209.