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Who Was… Alfred P. Sloan?

Man in suit and tie, eyes downcast and body leaning slightly to his right, hand placed on his head.

Alfred P. Sloan Jr. was an American entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Public Domain photo

By Vanessa Zimmer

What does the late Alfred P. Sloan Jr., an incredibly astute businessman who led a car manufacturer to great heights, have to do with the independent-film-loving Sundance Institute? He’s the guy whose foundation has been contributing to the mission of the Institute and its annual Film Festival since 2003. 

Those at the nonprofit American Business History Center consider Sloan among the greatest business leaders in history, if not the greatest. Sloan was an entrepreneur and philanthropist who intensely protected his private life — letting the mission of his Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as well as his collaboration with technologist Charles Kettering to fund New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, speak for themselves.

For the also-nonprofit Sundance Film Festival, that translates into financial support in the form of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize —  given annually to a Festival film with science or technology as a theme, or with a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character. The Foundation also partners with the Institute year-round in awarding episodic and development fellowships, as well as a commissioning grant.

The 1875-born Sloan excelled in his schoolwork and earned an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in just three years, graduating the youngest in his class, according to his bio. He started his career as a draftsman at a small roller bearing company that eventually merged into what became the General Motors Corporation. 

Sloan rose through the ranks to become president of GMC in 1923 and, later, chairman of the board. Under his leadership, GM surpassed the Ford Motor Company and became the largest company in the world. Sloan’s decentralization concept — giving the leaders of each division, like Chevrolet and Cadillac, more autonomy, for example — became a model for other companies.

The DNA of cinema is all about science and technology. That medium doesn’t exist without those advances.

Koganada

Writer-director

The nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation was established in 1934. Sloan died in 1966. According to the Foundation’s website, Sloan intended the organization to thrive beyond his lifetime “to represent my accomplishments in this life.” 

The Foundation awards grants to support original research and education related to science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and economics: “The Foundation believes that these fields — and the scholars and practitioners who work in them — are chief drivers of the nation’s health and prosperity. The Foundation also believes that a reasoned, systematic understanding of the forces of nature and society, when applied inventively and wisely, can lead to a better world for all.”

Part of the Foundation’s goal is to support film and other arts, reaching a wide audience in order to bridge the space between science and the humanities. Sloan’s Film Program encourages filmmakers to create realistic, compelling stories about science and technology and to challenge stereotypes about scientists.

Among those films receiving Sloan awards during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival was After Yang, about a family’s desperate attempts to repair their beloved robot, a valued family member and companion to their young adopted Chinese daughter.

“I’m so humbled to receive this award. It’s truly a privilege,” said After Yang’s writer-director Koganada during the presentation of the 2022 award. “More than ever, we need these spaces that aren’t driven by profit or driven by fear or power, but a space that is encouraging reflection. The DNA of cinema is all about science and technology. That medium doesn’t exist without those advances.” 

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From the Archives: Sundance Founder Robert Redford on Why He’s Always Believed in the Power of Documentary Filmmaking

The Sundance Film Festival’s longstanding commitment to documentary has been driven by the personal connection founder and president Robert Redford feels for the form. Leading up to the premiere of Chicago 10, the second doc to ever open the Festival, we talked to Redford about the past, present, and possible future of documentaries.You made an early commitment to documentary.

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