Conversation: Sundance Film Festival

BY Jeffrey Brown  January 21, 2011 at 1:46 PM EST

A general view of atmosphere during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2011 in Park City, Utah. Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Getty Images

Last year, I had the fascinating, tiring, illuminating experience of being a juror at the Sundance Film Festival and got to see firsthand one of the world’s leading film happenings.

This year’s Sundance Film Festival runs from Jan. 20 to 30. Earlier this week, I spoke to two people who work year-round to put it together: John Cooper, the festival director; and Trevor Groth, the director of programming:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Last year, I had the fascinating, tiring, illuminating — I could go on with the adjectives — experience of being a juror at the Sundance Film Festival and got to see firsthand this extremely popular and one of the world’s leading film happenings. It takes place ever year at Park City, Utah. This year’s festival runs from Jan. 20 to 30, and on the line from Park City, I have the two guys who work all year round to put it together: John Cooper is the festival director; Trevor Groth is director of programming. Welcome, guys.

JOHN COOPER: Thank you.

TREVOR GROTH: Thanks for having us.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Cooper, I know you don’t start out thinking thematically, but once you see what you’ve created — we’re just a day or two ahead of things — what jumps out at you? What do you have this year?

JOHN COOPER: I would say there is a little bit of an attention to religion and faith, and the bigger ideas of what we’re about definitely permeate a lot of the films we’re showing, a lot different than it was maybe I’d say five to 10 years ago. I would say also that comedies are sort of back in force. We’ve got quite a few this year. There’s a lot of — as you know, the jury you were on — there’s a lot that can be disturbing in the films in representing the world as it is, so that’s kind of good for the festival in general.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, I remember moments when I was yearning for a few laughs.

JOHN COOPER: One thing that we do is we don’t do themes, but what we do concentrate on is the structure of the festival and how we have room for different styles of films. We have to sort of make sure that there’s room carved out to represent what the filmmakers of today are doing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Trevor, give us a little sense of what you guys do all year to make it happen and how do you pick the films that end up there.

TREVOR GROTH: Well, that’s what we do all year is watch a lot of movies. It really begins as soon as the festival ends in February, even watching films that aren’t going to be invited to the festival next year because they’ll be too old by that time. You want to stay on top of all of those, look at the trends that are happening in different parts of the world. And we’re lucky enough to get pretty much every single independent film that’s made in the United States we get submitted to us. But as far as the international program goes, that’s where we’re still growing. I think luckily the work that we’ve been doing the past few years, in terms of traveling to all of these different places — our programmers go all over the world — it’s showing in the quality of the films that we’re having at this festival in our international section. Specifically, there’s film called “Tyrannosaur.” It’s world class film. This film could have been in competition at Cannes very easily, and because it’s a first-time filmmaker, even though he’s an established actor, Paddy Considine, they thought that Sundance was the right place for it. And I think that’s very exciting for us.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you have to get it down to final choices, is it a painful process? A fun process? One you’re just used to now after all these years or what?

JOHN COOPER: It’s always fun, in truth, yes. It’s fun to argue. It’s fun to be in a room with people that all have a really strong opinions, and you know that you’re arguing not to be right or wrong but arguing for a different kind of good. We argue a lot to get clear on a film and find out where the passion is instead of being right or wrong on your opinions. So it’s really trying to get things clear to say, Is this right film? Is this the film of all these others that should be part of the program?

TREVOR GROTH: A passionate argument for a film tends to win out over passionate arguments against, because to find something that a programmer loves and connects within a film, that’s what you’re looking for, and those are the films that tend to resonate with audiences as opposed to films that we all kind of agree are ok. We had a record number of submissions this year. We had over 10,000 films submitted to us, between shorts and features, and we narrowed the field down to, I think, about 200 films in the festival, right around there, between shorts and features. And I would say we have about twice that many that are of the caliber that we could show at the festival. The hard part is making those final decisions, and within that you do start to look for a balanced program.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you both finally, I remember last year there was a lot of talk there — you had panels, I talked to a lot of producers, directors there talked about the troubles for independent films, the ability to get financing, particularly in a weak economy. I know you’re trying to reach out to people who are making things often on a shoestring. What do you see now for independent filmmaking? Where are we at?

JOHN COOPER: I still think we’re in transition, for sure. I think a lot of what that transition is isn’t so much on how the films get made. Looking at our numbers, people are still making films. You can only do this anecdotally, but when you see that there are audiences for films out there, especially films that are rigorous like “Winter’s Bone” and “Precious” in that year before, there is still a hunger. How are you going to fill in that middle-ground of how the filmmakers are reaching the audience, and that formal, old distribution model can’t sustain survival with those films any long, so they sort of start ignoring them, so the hole that was building up out of that is more self-distribution, what that’s going to mean, what kind of new burdens does that put on filmmakers who are going to make that choice, especially with creative producers out there. They have to learn much more about their options, either of just being bought and sold or what they can do for themselves.

TREVOR GROTH: Because it’s sort of an open playing field right now, more and more people are encouraged to get out there and make their films and tell their stories, and with new technology to both make the films and to get them seen, anyone can be a part of it. And I think that’s why our numbers of submissions keep growing every year.

JOHN COOPER: I’ll even go out on a limb even a little further, as I think it’s changing the attitude of independent filmmakers not to even think so much about the commercial end of their film. They know that they have a lot of options, some of them more farfetched than others, but it’s also keeping them pure in making the films that they want to make. It’s not like, Oh, if I add this one star in, then this is what’s going to happen to my film. I think that they’re staying truer to themselves.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before I let you go, do you want to call our attention to one or two films that are either getting early buzz or that you’re interested in, you want to tell us about?

TREVOR GROTH: There are a couple of films that just were announced today that got acquired before they’ve screened at the festival, before they’ve had their world premiere. One documentary called “Project Nim,” director James Marsh, who is incredible, and HBO just acquired it. And second film is a film called “Take Shelter” by Jeff Nichols, who made a film called “Shotgun Stories” a few years ago, and this is his follow-up. It’s a really special film, and Sony Classics just acquired it.

JOHN COOPER: I think the comedy, “My Idiot Brother,” it looks like one kind of comedy that’s actually sort of more character [driven] than you would expect. It stars Paul Rudd, and I think that’s going to have some energy around it. And then there’s a film, “Rebirth,” which is really about 10 years after 9/11. I think that’s one of those that I don’t think people are noticing right now in the catalog, but as people start to talk about it, it will take on its own life. You see the healing of people over 10 years. It’s a very, well-crafted documentary, besides its quite big subject as well. And then there’s this other, almost kind of a phenomenon of sorts, which is “Life in a Day,” which is a film that we did with YouTube, the first film that was accepted to the festival this year even before it was made, because YouTube was a partner in it. They took footage that every shot on one day in July, July 24th, and then spent the next couple of months editing footage to put it together into this snapshot of our world as it exists on that day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. Well, John Cooper is the director, and Trevor Groth is the director of programming for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Thanks for talking to us and good luck this year.

TREVOR GROTH: Thanks a lot, Jeff.

JOHN COOPER: Thank you for asking good questions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. And thank you all for joining us on Art Beat once again.