John Cooper and Trevor Groth Dissect the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Program

Festival Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth.

Nate von Zumwalt, Editorial Coordinator

The assignment is unnerving: Shape an unwieldy 12,000 submissions into a svelte program of the world’s finest independent film. That’s the annual conundrum facing the Sundance Film Festival programming team, led by Festival Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth.

In a year when submission numbers reached unprecedented levels—an unremarkable statistic when considering the trend since the Festival’s inception—that selection process only becomes more challenging.

But where Cooper and Groth are content to acknowledge a brimming submissions inbox, they’re exultant when discussing the quality of this year’s films. Perhaps it’s that strict adherence to the ‘quality over quantity’ adage that has these two programmers eager to share this year’s films with the rest of the world. On the heels of their grueling screening and selection process, John Cooper and Trevor Groth sat down to explore the substance of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival program, call out some potential noisemakers, and check on the healthy pulse of the independent film community.

What do this year’s film submissions—more than 12,000 of them—say about the state of independent film?

John Cooper: To me, it says that independent film is thriving. It’s certainly exciting for us to receive 12,000 submissions this year for the first time ever, but more than that, we were really pleased by the overall quality of the films submitted to us. Each year the quality of independent film seems to rise, and we’re chalking that up to this idea of a vital independent film community – directors, producers, DP’s and art directors all continuing to work in independent film throughout their careers and also well-known and really talented actors joining these projects.

We sometimes find thematic strands among the films selected each year. What are some of the notable refrains that you see in the program for 2013?

JC: The films we were drawn to this year have elements of immediacy and fearlessness. They feel particularly compelling and urgent. The filmmakers aren’t afraid to delve into complex and personal issues head on. For example, many of the films explore sexual relationships and the nature of sexuality in our modern society, which can be really complicated and risky for some.

Trevor Groth: For me, I’ve always been surprised about how cautious filmmakers have been about exploring sexuality. Every year it seemed like we would have one or two films that would really get into it, and this year there were many. It’s a complex subject that we haven’t seen a lot of.

JC: Another theme is contemporary politics—films that both explain and expose the issues of our time. Topics like economic inequality, corporate corruption, and the problems and solutions of living in this world of sharing information.

TG: And then there is music. There’s been a recent surge in people making films about music, and we’ve really been drawn to the films that examine the spirit of creativity in music. It ties very naturally to independent film, which has a lot of the same impulses.

Sundance’s Dramatic Competition is renowned for introducing new, often raw filmmaker talent. This year’s line-up  features some high-profile returning artists — Lynn Shelton, Lake Bell, Shane Carruth, James Ponsoldt. Is the character of that category in evolving?

JC: The spirit of discovery is alive and well with this year’s Festival. Of the 113 feature films we selected, 51 are from first-time filmmakers. There are some recognizable names in our U.S. Dramatic Competition, and their films are a good representation of that section.

TG: Something that we’ve always done with our Competition line-up, which is prevalent again this year, is include artists who previously screened short films at the Festival and are now making their feature debuts with films in Dramatic Competition. That’s something that has always excited me—getting to see the exploration and evolution of these storytellers in different forms. This year those include Afternoon Delight, Ain’t Them Body Saints, In a World.., and Kill Your Darlings. Our shorts programming team does a great job of finding the talent in the thousands of submissions we receive each year. 

Beasts of the Southern Wild and Martha Marcy May Marlene are two recent examples of Sundance Institute Lab-supported films that achieved successful festival runs. How are Lab-supported films treated within the selection process and do you see similar potential for the four Institute-supported films in U.S. Dramatic Competition this year?

TG: The recent history with those films having success at the Festival and beyond makes us very happy. Each film is selected on its own merit, regardless of whether it’s been supported by our Labs or other programs. Each of the four films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition that were supported by our Labs has absolutely earned its spot in the Festival. 

NEXT <=> featured eight films last year and this year there are 10. What was the rationale behind that decision?

JC: It was really a product of the films we saw. This year there was a lot of energy from our programmers about different films. It’s my job to read the passion in the room, and when I saw that there was so much passion, I knew we had to find room for more films in NEXT <=>.

One of the great things about the Festival is that the films we get directly inform the program. In that, it feels like we’re serving and responding to what the independent film community is producing.

In recent years we’ve seen a prodigious number of deals brokered at the Festival. How do you see this year’s competition slate fairing in terms of acquisitions? Will these films be coming to theatres?

JC: We feel that there’s great potential for this year’s films to connect with audiences at the Festival and long after. Audiences for independent film are expanding and becoming more adventurous. Beasts of the Southern Wild showed that there’s an audience out there that’s up for more of a challenge. In some ways the whole notion of theatrical distribution as the be-all end-all is disappearing as other platforms open up and the possibilities become broader.

Were you pleased with the geographical diversity of this year’s international lineup?

TG: The World Dramatic Competition features a number of films that are shot by foreign filmmakers in countries outside of their homeland. A Chilean film shot in Italy, a German film shot in America, a Polish film shot in Spain, a UK film shot in the Philippines, and an Italian film shot in Brazil. There’s something remarkable about that. It speaks to the global filmmaking community that’s happening.

What can we expect from the remaining announcements—Spotlight, Midnight, New Frontier, Premieres and Documentary Premieres?

JC: You’ll really start to see the themes we’ve talked about fleshed out with more films. You’re going to see more big issues, more returning filmmakers and more talented artists to discover. And a few surprises, too.

Click here for a complete list of the Competition and NEXT <=> films. Also, join Festival Director John Cooper for a Reddit ‘IAmA’ at 3 p.m. PST today.

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