20 Things You Didn’t Know About the Sundance Film Festival

Jan 18, 2017

By Rich W.

“Sundance was started as a mechanism for the discovery of new voices and new talent.” – Robert Redford, Sundance Institute Founder

When you've tapped out all of the best coffee shops in Park City, and you're looking to get your cinema fix on, then it's time for Sundance! Considered the largest independent film festival in the United States, the Sundance Film Festival returns to Park City January 19-29, 2017, and will feature approximately 200 feature-length and short films. More than 46,000 attendees are expected at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Notable films introduced at the Festival over the years include The Birth of a Nation, Whiplash, Boyhood, Rich Hill, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, Little Miss Sunshine, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Reservoir Dogs, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bottle Rocket, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, An Inconvenient Truth, Precious and Napoleon Dynamite, among many others. In addition, a number of famous directors first made their name at Sundance such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Edward Burns and James Wan. In honor of the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, below is some fascinating trivia related to the greatest films, best and worst deals, famous directors and most outrageous moments in Festival history:

1. It all started with humble beginnings in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival ... The Sundance Film Festival had its earliest origins as the Utah/US Film Festival, which was founded by Sterling van Wagenen, John Earle and Cirina Hampton Catania in Salt Lake City in August 1978. Actor Robert Redford (who at the time was married to van Wagenen’s cousin) was named inaugural chairman of the Festival, which drew about 150 attendees the first year. The Utah/US Film Festival moved to Park City in 1981 reportedly at the suggestion of director Sydney Pollack (Jeremiah Johnson) and the dates were changed from September to January. Founded by Redford in 1981, the Sundance Institute took over the Festival in 1985 and changed its name to the United States Film Festival. It wasn’t renamed the Sundance Film Festival until 1991 (“Sundance” was the name of Redford’s character in the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid).

2. The Coen Brothers directorial debut aired at Sundance in 1985 … Blood Simple, the directorial debut of the Coen Brothers (Joel and Ethan), captured the Grand Jury Award for Dramatic Film at the 1985 Sundance Film Festival. The neo-noir psychological crime thriller starred Frances McDormand (in her feature film debut), John Getz, Dan Hedaya (“Nick Tortelli” from Cheers) and M. Emmet Walsh (as sleazy private detective “Loren Visser”).

3. Sex, Lies, and Videotape launched the modern independent film movement here in 1989 … Directed by Steven Soderbergh and made at a budget of just $1.2 million, Sex, Lies, and Videotape captured the Audience Award for Dramatic Film at the 1989 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the Palm d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. The film eventually grossed $24.7 million. Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which starred Andie MacDowell, James Spader, Laura San Giacomo and Peter Gallagher, launched the career of Soderbergh, who as a struggling filmmaker had served as a volunteer driver for festivalgoers at Sundance the year before. Today, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is considered one of the most influential movies in independent film history. In 2006, the film was added to the United States Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

4. Reservoir Dogs caused quite a stir at Sundance in 1992 … Quentin Tarantino’s debut effort, Reservoir Dogs, premiered at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and became the event’s most talked about film. The offbeat crime thriller starred Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Tim Roth, Lawrence Tierney and Tarantino himself as “Mr. Brown.” Empire magazine has named Reservoir Dogs the “Greatest Independent Film of All Time.”

5. Robert Rodriguez’s extremely low-budget debut won the Audience Award here in 1993 … Made for just $7,000, El Mariachi, the feature-length film debut of Robert Rodriguez, won the Audience Award at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. El Mariachi not only launched Rodriguez’s career but also served as the first film in his so-called “Mexico Trilogy,” which also includes Desperado (1995) and Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003). Rodriguez chronicled the story behind El Mariachi in his 1995 book Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker with $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player.

6. Clerks premiered at Sundance in 1994 and captured the Filmmakers Trophy … Shot entirely in black-and-white at a budget of $27,575, Kevin Smith’s debut film, Clerks, captured the Filmmakers Trophy when it premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival. Smith reportedly financed the film by selling off part of his extensive comic book collection and maxing out his credit cards.

7. Hoop Dreams made its debut here in 1994 … Today considered one of the greatest documentaries ever made, Hoop Dreams, which was directed by Steve James, first premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival and was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Film Editing (losing out to Forrest Gump).

8. Slamdance formed in 1995 as an edgy alternative to Sundance … In 1995, “a group of cheerful, subversive filmmakers” who weren’t accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, initiated their own event as “a showcase for raw and innovative filmmaking” called “Slamdance: Anarchy in Utah.” Today, the Slamdance Film Festival, which runs concurrently with the Sundance Film Festival, highlights emerging filmmakers and low-budget independent films.

9. Kurt & Courtney pulled from 1998 Sundance … Nick Broomfield’s controversial documentary, Kurt & Courtney, got pulled from the 1998 Sundance Film Festival after Courtney Love threatened to sue. The documentary focused on the numerous theories that arose surrounding the death of Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain in 1994. The Festival released a statement that the film was yanked due to “unresolved legal matters between the filmmaker and others – including uncleared music rights.”

10. The Blair Witch Project became a 1999 box office phenomenon … For better or worse, The Blair Witch Project gave birth to the “found-footage” horror genre. With a budget of approximately $60,000, the film, which premiered during a midnight screening at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, went on to gross more than $248 million worldwide – making it one of the most successful independent films of all time.

11. Three Seasons made Sundance Festival history in 1999 … Directed by Tony Bui, the American Vietnamese language film, Three Seasons, made Sundance Film Festival history in 1999 when it captured both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award. Other films that have since won both awards include God Grew Tired of Us (2006, documentary category), Quinceanera (2006, dramatic category), Precious (2009), Fruitvale Station (2013), Whiplash (2014), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and The Birth of a Nation (2016).

12. Future cult flick Napoleon Dynamite premiered at 2004 Sundance ... After it aired at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, Napoleon Dynamite was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures. With a $400,000 budget (the film’s star Jon Header was paid just $1,000), the film eventually grossed $46 million.

13. The first film starring Robert Redford screened here in 2004 … Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, The Clearing premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival as the first film starring festival chairman Robert Redford to air at the festival. Loosely based on the highly publicized kidnapping of a prominent businessman that took place in the Netherlands in 1987, The Clearing also starred Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe.

14. Hamlet 2 purchased for $10 million at 2008 Sundance, bombed at box office … After the comedy Hamlet 2 premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, Focus Features acquired worldwide rights to the film for $10 million. However, the film received mixed reviews and totally bombed at the box office, grossing just $4.9 million.

15. Graffiti Artist Banksy added murals around Park City during 2010 Sundance … Exit Through the Gift Shop, the offbeat documentary by legendary British street artist Banksy, premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. In addition, Banksy himself decorated downtown Park City with several of his colorful murals to help promote the film. In 2014, a vandal defaced one of Banksy’s pieces and received a $1,000 fine and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service.

16. Kevin Smith countered picketers at 2011 Red State premiere … After members of Westboro Baptist Church decided to protest Kevin Smith’s horror action film, Red State (claiming it “mocked the servants of God”), during its premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Smith organized his own impromptu and humorous protest against the protesters.

17. Beasts of the Southern Wild became a runaway hit in 2012 … After premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and capturing the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was directed by Benh Zeitlin, went on to win the Camera d’Or award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actress (Quvenzhané Wallis, who at nine years old became the youngest Best Actress nominee in history).

18. Camel-riding director caused chaos at 2013 Sundance … Director Next Anyextee, whose film Egypt Through the Glass Shop didn’t make it into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, caused quite a stir by riding a camel through Park City’s Main Street as a publicity stunt to promote the film. For his efforts, Anyextee got cited by Park City police for obstructing traffic.

19. The Birth of a Nation achieved Sundance’s biggest sale ever in 2016 … Directed by Nate Parker, The Birth of a Nation not only won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival but also sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million. The slave revolt epic starred Parker, along with Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union.

20. A diverse lineup promised for 2017 Sundance … With titles like An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, NOBODY SPEAK: Hulk Hogan, Gawker and Trials of a Free Press, A Ghost Story, Killing Ground, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, Casting JonBenet, The Polka King and Long Strange Trip (a nearly four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead!), the 2017 Sundance Film Festival promises to be better than ever! According to Redford, “From the passion and chaos of creativity, independent filmmakers make decisions to harness that energy, break new ground and tell their stories. This year’s Festival reflects every step of that journey, and shows how art can engage, provoke and connect people all over the world.”

Enjoy complimentary transportation to the Sundance Film Festival when you stay at Westgate Park City Resort & Spa, located at the base of the Canyons Village at Park City.


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