A Closer Look at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Competition and NEXT Films

God’s Pocket, in Dramatic Competition

Nate von Zumwalt, Editorial Manager

January will usher in the 30th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival, and chatting with Festival Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth, one can sense that things aren’t so different than they were at Robert Redford’s inaugural Festival in Park City, Utah. As independent film has evolved from its renegade-spirited roots to an “accepted form of creative expression,” the tenets of the Sundance Film Festival remain unaffected.

In deconstructing  the program for the 2014 Festival, Cooper and Groth’s sentiment is especially reflective. The former, now in his 25th year with the Festival, is keen on the advancements in cinema that have engendered this year’s eclectic stories, while Groth recognizes a loyalty to the original Sundance mission in blossoming film categories such as NEXT <=>. 

Below, the pair of lead programmers for the Sundance Film Festival talk about what they look for when parsing through more than 12,000 film submissions, the intriguing role that genre will play in this year’s Festival, and what to expect from each of this year’s film categories. 

2014 marks the 30th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival and the second consecutive year that submissions have exceeded 12,000 films. What do those numbers say about the vitality of independent film? 

John Cooper: Independent film has evolved and grown in huge ways over the past 30 years, and I think filmmakers now understand the power and capability of film to have real impact. They grasp that films can change policy and opinions in the way that films like The Invisible War or Blackfish have. We’ve also seen independent film become a very vital part of the cultural landscape. It’s become an accepted art form, an accepted form of creative expression. These factors and others are improving the quality and originality of work being made in independent film, and that made our selection process this year particularly rigorous. 

Trevor Groth: What’s interesting to me in looking back at the 30th anniversary of the Festival is how effective the mission has been. Robert Redford started the Festival as a way of connecting independent filmmakers to a bigger audience. At the time he started it, it was to connect them with the hundreds of people seeing the films in Park City. It started to grow exponentially over the years, and we now have an entire industry around these kinds of artists working in film. 

Looking at the U.S. Dramatic Competition program, is there a cohesion to this year’s slate of films similar to what we’ve seen in the past? 

JC: Something I’ve noticed is that all of these films have a completeness of vision. I like to ask myself, “Is this the film that the filmmaker wanted to make?” That’s the only way we can compare all of these apples to oranges and make selections.

TG: Another thing we noted this year is the use of genre elements in films throughout all of the sections. We’ve got riffs on horror, thrillers, musicals, sci-fi, even westerns, and you see that in the Dramatic Competition. Life After Beth, for example, fuses zombie and young love. Cold In July and Sleepwalker are both thrillers, which you might expect to see in Park City at Midnight, but they’re playing in Dramatic Competition.

Documentary Competition always frames a compelling reflection of the times, and this year is no different. What do you look for when filling out that section? 

JC: We’re drawn to stories that really nail an issue, and sometimes provide solutions as well. The window of time is shrinking between an event happening and becoming a documentary film. Some of these films are still being made, which allows audiences to see issues in a deep, immediate, and comprehensive way.

TG: This Documentary Competition lineup features a lot of character-driven stories. Everything from Dinosaur 13, CAPTIVATED The Trials of Pamela Smart, E-Team, Overnighters, No No: A Dockumentary, Rich Hill, and so on. That’s something that ties into what we’ve always responded to in documentary film: storytelling and a cinematic experience. 

How would you gauge the geographical diversity of this year’s international lineup? 

JC: We’ve done a lot of outreach in World Cinema, and you really have to enter into communities to find the type of films we want. The range of countries we have is really interesting: Ethiopia, Tanzania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and others. I think that’s also being helped by the expansion of Sundance Institute’s other programs – FILM FORWARD, Sundance London and others – into international regions.

There are some new and exciting elements developing within New Frontier this year. Can you touch on that in advance of tomorrow’s official announcement?

JC: New Frontier has an incredible lineup this year. The venue is moving to Main St., and we have two major installations that will be right on the street for the first time ever, which allows us to engage audiences at the Festival who aren’t even thinking in this way. 

Last year’s NEXT <=> section had a lot of strong and independent voices. What can we expect from that section in 2014?

TG: NEXT <=> has really established its own identity within the Festival and beyond. We created it in response to innovative storytellers who were carving out their own space within the independent film world. Storytellers are constantly going to be pushing themselves, and there needs to be a place to showcase that.

JC: You might even say that’s why our Festival was created…

Read more about the U.S. and World Cinema Dramatic and Documentary Competition films, and films in NEXT <=>.

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