Redford defends Sundance’s record on diversity

Film: Sundance Film Festival 2016

Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford says the whole reason he started programming films in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains was to broaden the world of mainstream filmmaking to include other voices.

By Katherine Monk

PARK CITY, UTAH – It used to be called an “Oscar race.” Now it’s all about race and the Oscars.

It’s an issue that’s settled into the tissue of the film industry like a bad infection, threatening to throw the whole system into sepsis, and prompting a wholesale change to the way the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences functions as an organization.

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced new initiatives Friday, hoping to stop the growing momentum behind a celebrity boycott, assuring the public the Academy membership would look a lot different by the year 2020, with more representation from non-white males, and more women.

Even here at the Sundance Film Festival, where the mountain air and a host of new talent usually distract the industry from its usual woes for ten days, the word “diversity” has been uttered more often than “deal,” “buzz,” “ambush marketing” and “How do I get to Main Street?”

Redford had to deal with the issue in the opening press conference Thursday, explaining that Sundance has never had to worry about being diverse enough because it’s rooted in the independent film world, where the status quo isn’t always affirmed with the same conviction as Hollywood genre films.

“Diversity comes out of the word independence, which is the principal word we operate from, and it’s a word I have operated from personally for most of my life. If you are independent minded, then you will do things differently from the common form,” he said.

“You have these issues that come up, we don’t bring them up, we just put a spotlight on the artists who bring them up. In other words, the artists are making films about what’s on the public mind and the public conversation and because we are in support of the artists, we look at what they come up with… We don’t take a position,” Redford stressed.

“Going back to the early days… we picked out areas that were not getting attention or support and tried to focus through a lab program or the festival to throw a spotlight on that area… and build diversity that way. We’ve tried to do that since the beginning.”

Redford said he doesn’t think that much about Oscars anyway, then went out of his way to clarify his remarks, just in case.

“I would like to straighten something out: There’s always a tendency to label things and subjugate areas and I would like to make clear that I am not against the mainstream because I have been part of that, and very happily a part of that. A lot of the films I have been involved with have been mainstream films so this independent film idea that we came up with at Sundance is not like insurgents coming down from the mountains to attack the mainstream,” he said.

“It was meant to broaden the category, that’s all. But somehow that got mislaid along the way of me being against the mainstream, and I am not. I am not against the mainstream.… We wanted a place for artists to show their work. It never occurred to me that we would be creating a second stream of opportunity for audiences. Because when people came up here, I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, and I assumed it wouldn’t, but when audiences started coming up here to Utah… to see stuff they couldn’t see in the marketplace and that’s when I realized we were creating an opportunity for more viewership.”

I would like to straighten something out: There’s always a tendency to label things and subjugate areas and I would like to make clear that I am not against the mainstream because I have been part of that, and very happily a part of that. – Robert Redford

Over the three decades of Sundance programming, independent film has morphed from a curiosity into an industry, and a whole Sundance brand that includes television, streaming, cinemas, labs and educational programs.

The community has grown so much, and the technology has increased accessibility to the point where the festival received over 12,000 submissions this year for a mere 123 feature slots, by far the most in its history.

With so many more films competing for attention, and so many more platforms available to the public, the core experience of filmgoing and its place in society could be at risk. Redford said that’s another area Sundance has an interest in preserving, because he believes there’s something magical that happens when people gather in the dark.

“This all takes me back to a more fundamental feeling… and the creation of the Sundance cinemas, which I believe are in seven cities now. When I was a kid growing up in Los Angeles, we were in a working class neighbourhood, and the only thing you had was a movie every Saturday night,” he said.

“So we would walk to the theater and see two features, and a couple of cartoons, a short, a newsreel from Pathé about the war going on that involved your relatives. And when I got to the point where I was making films and I had to preview films in different places, you’d have trailers blasting your ears off but none of the other. And I thought, why can’t we bring that back?” Redford said.

“Now…  films are getting smaller and moving into the home, we have the palm sized screens… but I guess I am old-fashioned enough to believe people will always go into a movie house in the dark collectively with each other and see a movie on a big screen… and be transported. I will always believe that’s important.”


123 Features

103 world premieres

72 Short Films

12,793 submissions

4,081 feature submissions

8,712 short film submissions

49 first-time filmmakers

41 female feature filmmakers

34 female shorts filmmakers




PHOTO: Katherine Monk
THE EX-PRESS, January 23, 2015


1 Reply to "Redford defends Sundance's record on diversity"

  • joan Monk January 23, 2016 (7:14 pm)

    I am happy to read Robert Redford’s comments so well reported. We are saddened to have race be always on the table, and now for the arts as well as the everyday squabbles and injustices. Quotas are not emotionally rewarding and satisfying entertainment. All the joy and surprise are lost when we have to consider tribal categories or even separate award ceremonies entirely.Will we have the black Oscars and the White Oscars? This does not help uniting people. Where is the warmth and where is the positive attitude. The problem starts when the subject is chosen and before production even starts. Somewhere there has to be a visionary. Robert Redford at least has a vision and follows it through for his project.

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