Amid Recession, Sundance Sees Optimism

The Sundance Film Festival is now under way, but it couldn't come at a worse time for independent cinema. Most of the major studios have closed their indie divisions, and the recession has dried up outside funding for just about anything without a star attached to it. John Cooper, the festival's new director, says despite the signs it's an optimistic time for indie films.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeleine Brand. The Sundance Film Festival kicked off last night, and it could not have come at a worse time for independent film. It seems harder than ever to get small films made and harder still to get them into theaters. Most of the major studios have closed their indie divisions, and the recession has all but dried up financing for these films.

Many of the ones that do make it, they debut at Sundance. And we're joined now by John Cooper. He's the new director of the Sundance Film Festival. He joins us from Park City, Utah. Welcome to the program.

Mr.�JOHN COOPER (Director, Sundance Film Festival): Hey, thank you.

BRAND: Is it really that bad out there for people who make indie films?

Mr.�COOPER: You know, you'd think it was. With that intro, I started to get depressed for a second, but actually not. I think it's actually a very optimistic time for independent film. We did go through, you know, not without our bumps and bruises right now, but if you look at our submission numbers this year - those are the people that, you know, submitted films that weren't made under the studio system - it was actually the same amount of films this year and even more, especially in the shorts categories. So it's not a bad time for creativity. It's just a bad time for all the ways you connect with an audience.

BRAND: In other words getting them seen.

Mr.�COOPER: Right, and those old traditional methods of getting films seen are changing daily.

BRAND: What are the options, then, for independent filmmakers because as we've said, many film studios have shut down their independent divisions, and there's not a lot of financing out there during this recession. So what are their options?

Mr.�COOPER: Yeah, that's true. Financing is difficult. What a lot of filmmakers are doing are going lower budget. They're using technology in their favor in the way they're going to put out their films.

BRAND: So distributing online, that kind of thing?

Mr.�COOPER: Yep, online, marketing online in particular. What kind of I think killed a lot of the independent industry, as we call it, was really that marketing dollars and how much it takes to reach an audience, and that's all it's all up for grabs right now. It's all changing rapidly.

We have many films at our festival that are actually using the festival platform as a leaping-off point to actually launch their films into the marketplace. They're not waiting to be picked up and then many months later make it into theaters. A lot of them are just jumping right into the direct-to-audience technology platforms.

BRAND: Tell us some of your favorites that you've seen at the festival this year.

Mr.�COOPER: You know, I don't like to talk, like, in those terms so much because, you know, it's kind of like they're all my children at this point. Let's talk about interesting films. How about that?

BRAND: Okay.

Mr.�COOPER: We have a film "Holy Rollers," which is about Hasidic Jews who deal ecstasy out of Amsterdam, which is sort of a fascinating story. We have...

BRAND: Is this a documentary or a feature film?

Mr.�COOPER: No, that's a fictioned(ph) film.

BRAND: Okay.

Mr.�COOPER: We have "The Company Men," which is premiering tonight, which is about downsizing company and these three sort of powerful men in this company that find themselves, you know, out of work and what that does to their masculinity. That's with Ben Affleck and Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones.

There's some wonderful documentaries, of course. Documentaries are a big part of who we are, everything from "Restrepo," which is about Afghanistan and being with a unit on a hilltop in Afghanistan that takes hits every single day, "A Small Act," which is a beautiful film of how one woman's donation to this fund changed this person's life who went on to change many, many other people's lives in Kenya. It just goes on.

BRAND: You're a brand new director of the Sundance Film Festival, the first new one in 20 years. How are you going to change it?

Mr.�COOPER: Yeah, that's sort of true, and it sort of isn't. I've actually worked for the film festival for 20 years.

BRAND: Oh, okay.

Mr.�COOPER: So I like to say, you know, whatever was wrong with the festival, I'm both I also might be the blame. So I went back to the drawing board a little bit, and I wanted to talk to our stakeholders, and that's the fans that come to the festival. And I also listened a lot. I listened a lot to the filmmakers, the filmmaking community.

We added this new section called Next, which is for no- and low-budget filmmaking. That was new. We changed our opening night up to make it a little less formal, and we launched right into our competition last night, which is was very exciting.

And we're doing a new program, which is Sundance Film Festival USA, where we're taking eight films that are premiering at the festival and taking them out to eight cities across America. That was designed to plant a stake in the ground and a place to really talk about the notion of film in our culture and what it means in our society to have art in general in our society. It's something that we're grossly neglecting in our national dialogue.

BRAND: John Cooper is the director of the Sundance Film Festival, which lasts until next Sunday. Thank you very much.

Mr.�COOPER: Thank you.

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