INTERVIEW: Sundance Director John Cooper Says 'Fearlessness' Distinguishes The Festival's 2013 Slate

John Cooper Sundance 2013

The week following Thanksgiving is, traditionally, one in which the film industry looks back and forward. The Gotham Awards, which took place in New York on Monday night, and the Film Independent Spirit Awards nominations, which were announced on Tuesday, pay homage to the film achievements of the past year, while the Sundance Film Festival, which announced the first of its lineups on Wednesday, begins the discussion for the coming year. Most titles in the festival's U.S. competition slots will find distribution — and as they reach moviegoing audiences, steer the ongoing cultural conversation that good film provokes. 

Sundance Film Festival 2013
So, what is in store for this year's festival? Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper talked to Movieline about this year's titles and how current affairs/economics/cultural shifts have influenced filmmakers in this year's round.

"Overall, there's an immediacy and a fearlessness to many of the films we've selected that really stand out to me," said Cooper.  "Filmmakers are tackling complex issues head-on — there's no dancing around difficult subjects any more.  And while it's challenging if not impossible to sum up all of these films in just a few words, it seems as though many of them are exploring issues involving contemporary politics, interpersonal sexual relationships and music as an art form, and how each of these impacts us personally and societally."

"Independent film has been affected by shifting economic conditions"
The 2008 financial crisis had some spelling doom for indie/specialty filmmaking which, after a boom at the turn of the century, saw tough times even before the economy went into free fall. Filmmakers had to grapple with new economic realities, and investors clamping their wallets shut (not that raising money was ever an easy chore). Acquisitions weren't quite so robust at the 2009 and '10 festivals, but the following year saw a return to near-boom levels, though distributors were no longer throwing money at hot titles the way they had in the past. And this year's festival saw Sundance return to its perch as the industry's top destination for doing business in the U.S.

Like many other industries, "independent film has been affected by shifting economic conditions," Cooper told Movieline. "I think the result of this is that independent filmmakers are more resilient and confident in telling the stories they want to tell. With studio financing playing a role in fewer independent projects and tools such as crowd-sourcing enabling filmmakers to retain control throughout the production and even distribution process, what we're seeing are films with truer and more fully formed visions that are finding audiences in new and creative ways." He added: "That's a positive development for independent filmmakers as well as audiences."

It's not known yet whether one of last year's 100-plus titles will factor into this year's Oscars race, as the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, The Cove, did  (and, previously, Man on Wire and March of the Penguins), but the 2012 Sundance Dramatic Competition winner Beasts of the Southern Wild is generating considerable awards buzz, particularly for its young star Quvenzhané Wallis. Although the film's $11.25 million gross so far is not huge, it is a feat for a film that did not have any stars. Other features and documentaries that played at Sundance and went on to see theatrical release include Bachelorette, Detropia, Searching for Sugar Man, Middle of Nowhere, Safety Not Guaranteed, Your Sister's Sister, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Chasing Ice.

"We were pleased to see that so many films from our 2012 festival found audiences throughout the year," said Cooper. "And because many of the films were fairly challenging and even considered "risky" by some, that showed that audiences are more willing to experiment with film choices.  That in turn is giving independent filmmakers even more freedom to experiment when making their films.  The films we've selected for 2013 seem to be in keeping with this."

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