New Sundance Kid Cooper takes helm at Redford’s independent-film festival

By David Germain, AP
Thursday, January 21, 2010

New Sundance Kid Cooper takes helm at indie fest

PARK CITY, Utah — John Cooper is the new Sundance kid, calling the shots for his first year as director of Robert Redford’s festival for independent film.

A festival veteran who started with Redford’s Sundance Institute as a volunteer in 1989, Cooper presides over a Sundance Film Festival that is trying a few new things but essentially aims to remain true to its decades-old values.

When he got the job early in 2009, Cooper got hundreds of replies to e-mails he sent out soliciting advice and opinions from Sundance regulars.

“Most all of them were of the same tone. They didn’t have anything specific, like do more of this or less of that. It was please stay on mission,” Cooper said Thursday, as the festival opened for its 11-day run.

“I really felt a responsibility to, and actually permission, to not think about anything but what was core to us, and that is going for excellence and creativity in the films we choose, and nothing else,” he said.

Sundance has made notable changes in Cooper’s first year. Gone is the splashy opening-night tradition of a premiere that’s not competing for festival prizes.

Instead, Sundance went right into the awards contenders, beginning with entries in its dramatic, documentary and short-film competitions, including “Howl,” starring James Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg.

The festival added a program of eight films with tiny budgets of less than $500,000 to ensure a place for such do-it-yourself works amid high-profile Sundance premieres, whose stars this year include Ben Affleck, Katie Holmes, Kevin Kline, Kristen Stewart and other top Hollywood names.

Sundance also is branching out across the country, sending eight festival films and their directors for screenings and chats with audiences in eight cities on Jan. 28.

Among the titles: Affleck’s “The Company Men” will play in Brookline, Mass., Stewart’s “The Runaways” will show in Madison, Wis., and Kline and Holmes’ “The Extra Man” will screen in Nashville, Tenn.

Redford said promoting Cooper to festival director was an easy decision after predecessor Geoff Gilmore departed last year for Tribeca Enterprises, which runs Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival.

“There are two reasons I’m excited,” Redford said about Cooper. “One is, he gets to be seen for what he is and has been for many years, which is a principal force in this program. Secondly, I like to see people grow and have a chance to expand …

“It was time for us to make a change to keep ourselves fresh. Having John come into that place, it was natural, and you’ll see the results,” Redford said.

Cooper studied stage design in his native California and worked as an actor, singer and dancer in New York City through the 1980s.

After volunteering with Sundance’s filmmaking labs, Cooper then joined the festival, creating its short-film program and later working on its documentary and feature-length selections. He became director of programming in 2003.

“It was just so perfect,” he said. “They said come to this place. I was a California boy, a Sierra Nevada mountains kid, so I saw it as a great opportunity, first to get out of town. Then I got here, and the artists that were there were all so authentic and everyone was giving so much. It was infectious. … They couldn’t get rid of me.”

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