40 Years of Celebrating the Dance Under the Sun. Part 1 of 2

By: Mark Ehrenkranz

In the tradition of independence, religious persecution and the assassination of their leader Joseph Smith, the first group of Mormons headed westward for the hills along the California Trail. Brigham Young led a group of two children, three women, and 143 men. They traveled on horseback or in oxen-pulled wagons for three months; then, on July 22, 1847, they entered the Salt Lake Valley. The immortal words, “This is the place,” were soon heard throughout the wagon convoy as the Mormon pioneers inhabited the valley of the Great Basin. The ancient Salt Lake lay far away from any government and belonged to Mexico at the time. When the United States took possession, the Mormons prayed that they could live there in peace independently from the rest of the world.

Approximately 50 miles south of Salt Lake City (SLC), Utah, there’s a peak called Mount Timpanogos. Better known as Timp, it is the second highest mountain in Utah’s Wasatch Range with an elevation of 11,752 ft. For those not so into gigantic hills, Everest is 29,000 ft., Denali, in Alaska, is 20,000 ft. and Mount Rainier, in Oregon, is 14,400 ft. The Timpanogots and Ute tribes lived there back in the1400’s. The name means “rock” (tumpi-), and “water mouth” or “canyon” (panogos), and became popular when a professor at Brigham Young University started a hiking trail there which sparked an annual Timpanogos Hike.

It was originally surveyed in the mid-1800s by Scottish immigrants and US government employees Andrew Jackson Stewart Jr. and his sons, Andrew, Scott, and John Stewart, who discovered the majestic views. Lincoln’s westward expansion Homestead Act enabled them to build log cabins, and by 1911 they owned 2,200 acres raising sheep and cattle in what they called the Stewart Flats. It later held ski races and became a skiing destination.

Fast forward to the 1960’s, the Stewart family built a subdivision called Timp Haven Homes. In 1968 the great American actor, director Robert Redford purchased two-acres for himself, and soon after, bought all of it. He renamed it Sundance, not after his 1969 film, but out of respect given to the Native American Sun Dance. The resort of Sundance is not to be confused with the town of Sundance, Wyoming, the location from which the Sundance Kid received his name. Redford’s 1972 film Jeremiah Johnson was, in-fact, filmed near the Sundance resort.

Rejecting advice from New York investors to cash in and fill the canyon with a swarm of lucrative hotels and condominiums, Redford saw his land as an ideal locale for environmental conservation and artistic expression.

While all this was going on, the big movie studios controlled mostly all of the film business. In those days, a few studios would allow smaller “quid pro quo” films to be made under their monikers. Most of these specialty stories went into the gray area of commercialized movies. In 1980, the industry began to get more homogenized, following the youth market and where the money was. It was going to be at the expense of the lesser-known stories that were more about the humanistic side of life, and stories about Americana. The only other true indies at the time were made by Europeans, and directors such as John Cassavetes, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Elaine May, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, David Lynch and Roger Corman. They were limited to labels of Art-House, Cult or Midnight movies.

Up until then, film fests were very popular in Europe and there was only a handful in the US – mostly attended by cineastes. North America’s oldest film festival is Columbus, Ohio’s International Film & Video Festival which began in 1953. The San Francisco International Film Festival started in 1957, Ann Arbor Film Festival in 1961, New York Film Festival (once Lincoln Center was built) in 1962, The Chicago International Film Festival in 1965. The first ski resort fest celebrating mountain movies in 1974 was in Telluride, Colorado. Big movies and big stars drove the success of these events.

At the same time Redford wanted to start a development process where young artists who hadn’t “made it” yet could have a voice, and to provide help developing their skills so they could at least get their films made. The bigger issue was that the mainstream had not allowed any opportunities for them to be seen.

Due to its lower elevation, Redford’s resort had a shorter ski season than its competitors. In order to increase revenue, he wanted to create an Aspen-like atmosphere and use his Sundance resort to promote the arts and draw in Hollywood stars. It needed financial help since it was an hour south of the action in SLC and thirty-five minutes from the popular Park City.

In August, 1978, in Salt Lake City, the Utah/US Film Festival was created to attract more filmmakers to Utah. It was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen (then head of Wildwood, Robert Redford’s company) and members of The Utah Film Commission. The 1978 films were Deliverance, A Streetcar Named Desire, Midnight Cowboy, Mean Streets, and The Sweet Smell of Success. The intent of the festival was to showcase American-made films, highlight the value of independent film, and to promote filmmaking in Utah. The goal was to conduct a competition for independent American films, present retrospectives with filmmaker panel discussions, and to celebrate filmmakers who worked outside of the Hollywood system.

In November 1979, Redford held a 3-day conference for filmmakers and professional artists at the Sundance Mountain Resort. The purpose of the event was to promote indie filmmakers. These efforts laid the foundation for what would become the Sundance Institute. In 1981, the Institute was founded to foster and celebrate the diversity of American filmmaking.

In 1981, the festival struck the second era of historic gold in Park City, Utah. A big plus was that drinking alcohol was permitted in the contemporary location, and the organizers changed the dates from September to January. The move from late summer to mid-winter was done by the executive director, Susan Barrell with the cooperation of Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, who suggested that running a film festival in a ski resort during winter would draw more attention from Hollywood.

Park City was built on precious metals and was originally named after Parley P. Pratt who explored the canyon in 1848. The settlers named it “Parley’s Park City”, which was shortened to “Park City” in the early 1900s. The first incarnation of finding actual silver, gold, and lead sparked the original silver mines in Park City in 1860 which brought an entirely different type of crowd that set up camps marking the first boom of prosperity.

1985 had the most significant change in the Festival’s organization. Providing the festival with financial support, year-round staff, and a network of contacts, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute assumed artistic management of the Festival and became 10 days instead of 3. By 1991 the shindig had been officially renamed The Sundance Film Festival and developed a reputation for championing a completely new wave of US indie titles to box office success.

Studios paid more attention to the films at Sundance, and the fest became a feeder system where indie projects became box-office successes. Awards meant instant distribution deals, and new studios and boutique divisions were created that specialized in “Sundance-esque Movies”. There were all-night bidding wars amongst companies such as Miramax, October Films, Gramercy, IFC, Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics. Quentin Tarantino, who had received funding and creative support from the Sundance Institute, premiered his 1992 film Reservoir Dogs at the festival; the film then earned more than $2 million at the box office and established his reputation as a formidable American auteur. Other game-changers included The Blair Witch Project, The Brothers McMullen, Sex Lies and Videotape, Hoop Dreams, Little Miss Sunshine, The Usual Suspects, Pi, Garden State, Clerks, El Mariachi, Spanking the Monkey, Slackers and many more.

A variety of enterprises have also carried the Sundance name over the decades. The Institute launched a cable-TV arm, the Sundance Channel, in 1996 to air films, documentaries, and original series commercial-free. There is also a Sundance mail-order catalog selling home decorations, gifts, and clothing; a Sundance Resort in Sundance, Utah; and Sundance Cinemas.

All of the advances and programs that Sundance developed and offers, plus award winners of 2018, and much more to be covered in “40 Years of Celebrating the Dance Under the Sun, Part 2.”

This year’s Sundance Film Festival runs January 18th -28th, 2018 in Park City, Utah