John Cooper looks weathered. Having not seen him since last year, I can tell that there is a bit more gray on his head and more than a few sleepless nights in his recent past. In his first year as the Director of the Sundance Film Festival, he has undertaken the big task of rebranding the rebellion, rebirthing Sundance as a platform for up-and-comers. At least, that is how Robert Redford described it to press at yesterday’s opening day press conference. According to Redford, there’s a rebirth happening here — and it starts with putting filmmakers in a position to find their path, and to have their films seen.

Cooper’s story is one of longstanding loyalty to Sundance, having been hired on as a volunteer in 1989. He has since worked his way up to lead the production team, finally taking the reigns as Director following the departure of Geoffrey Gilmore, who fled to the Tribeca Film Festival last spring.

In his first year at the helm, Cooper has already accomplished a lot toward bringing Sundance further into the digital age. The festival will screen five films online in partnership with YouTube, including three releases from this year an two from last year.

They will also be sending eight filmmakers and their films to eight cities around the country on Jan. 28, for the first time taking Sundance on the road.

As well, the fest has also added a brand new category for films made for under $500,000. Titled NEXT, the category showcases eight tiny-budget films that will rub elbows with bigger indie fare such as The Runaways, The Company Men and the Fox Searchlight release Cyrus, starring John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill.

All of this is part of the progression of Sundance as an industry leader, where it has stood for some time. But according to Redford, Sundance hasn’t been doing its part as leader over the past few years. “We were flat-lining,” he explained. The past few years have been plagued by outside influences, and marketers descending on Park City with celebrities such as Paris Hilton (who Redford admitted to not wanting back, ever) in tow.

To combat a half decade of not leading the way as the Sundance Kid would like, Cooper’s team asked the tough questions, soliciting advice from fans, attendees and filmmakers. What they found was the need to go back to basics. Redford’s “rebirth,” as it were. But Cooper describes it more as a reminder. “We asked ourselves, who are we? Why was Sundance formed in the first place?” The answer is written in this year’s program guide and in the confidence of its two leading men. Fresh voices, fresh films and no sign of Paris Hilton on the horizon.

With its 1,600 volunteers and its weathered, but confident leader, Sundance marches proudly into its new era.


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