John Cooper talks Sundance and rebellion

As Sundance kicks off, here's what the festival director said about stepping up to the top job last year.

by Amber Wilkinson

When it comes to Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper is a self-proclaimed "super-fan" and his energy is infectious. I never had the chance to meet Geoffrey Gilmore in person during his tenure as festival director, but there's no doubting that Cooper has a much more upbeat, natural "room presence". As Sundance cranks up for another edition, we take a look back at an interview he gave me last year.

I meet him early in the morning on the third full day of Sundance 2010 - and his first year as top dog. And there's no denying Cooper's credentials, as his promotion comes after working for the festival in some capacity for more than two decades.

"I've been with the festival for 21 years, this is my life, I guess," he says. The years certainly haven't worn down his enthusiasm for the role and even though it's early and he was up late the night before, he seems to be on a high, courtesy of the good reception the festival has had so far.

"It's been great," he says. "This is the culmination of all the work we do, all the budgeting we do and all the changes we make, so it's really exciting to see it all come together. It's really nice to see everyone happy. Going to a festival, even though it's cold and even though it's in the snow, the audiences seem really cheered up and really tackling this programme in a great way. Because not all of our films are crowd pleasers, we know that going in. So it's nice to see people taking on the festival the way their supposed to."

Stepping in to the hot seat must have been something of a challenge. But if it gave him any qualms, Cooper - whose key projects with the Institute since his arrival in 1989 include the development of the contemporary art focused New Frontier (which this year moves to the Miner's Hospital near the Library Theatre) - isn't letting on.

"I was prepared for most of it, because a lot of it is the same job I've been doing because even in my old job I had taken on a lot of things. It's a bit surreal. The biggest difference when you're coming into the festival is that, when you're second in command or third in command or part of a team, you are there to be a loud voice in the room. To give opinions that help people steer something.

"But now I'm the one that has to listen more and it's a lot more about your staff and about the people you hire. Because this isn't the John Cooper Film Festival. First and foremost it's a festival for the filmmakers and then the audiences. So I have to listen a lot more, especially in programming, to my very seasoned, excellent staff."

Coming into a new role though, must surely present new challenges, not least concerned with any changes in direction that any fresh incumbent wants to make and Cooper admits "you have to pick your battles and pick your changes".

He adds: "It's hard not to keep trying to change things, it's hard to put that date in the year, around September first, when if you're going to do it right [that's when it has to be done]. Each new idea infiltrates some many people's lives round here - the people who make the badges, the people who do this - you add one more filmmaker and it all has to fall into place. You throw in one more event and think, we're just going to have this meeting, but someone has to be there to open the door, someone has to there to serve coffee... it's a big machine.

"To tell you the truth, this festival changes every year. It always comes from Redford - it's almost become a joke - we have a wrap meeting and he says, 'no time to rest on your laurels'. We began this process where we examine pretty much everything we do. So we're changing things pretty much every year.

"I know the one stamp that I wanted to put on this year was to really think about the audience and make sure there weren't any little things or big things that would make the experience better. I'll give you an example. It's something you'd never notice from year to year. Filmmaker badges, that used to say 'Filmmaker' and then all the people that came with the film would have just a generic badge. But now we have 'Director' and everyone else gets a'film' badge, so everybody knows those people are with a film. So, as I go through a room, if I see a cinematographer etc, I know they're with a film. Those are the little things. It's all in the details."

One detail that most definitely didn't go unnoticed last year was the addition of a new section, the somewhat cumbersomely entitled NEXT (<=>), which aims to showcase low and no-budget American films. I asked him where the inspiration came from.

"Trevor [Groth], the new director of programming, and I sort of concocted that idea," he says. "We were driving to the festival last year and he had done Cinevegas as well, which is a festival that specialises in a lot of smaller films. So, we were driving in, and we said, 'You know, there's still some small films that it feels weird that they're not here. It feels weird that those filmmakers weren't given the opportunity to become part of this community.' Even though they are low-budget films and I know that not everyone is going to like them, we can find room for them. If we're here to serve the community, those three or four filmmakers should be here at this festival. So we started concocting this plan to carve out a section."

Last year was also the first year that they streamed some of the feature films Youtube, so that people who can't or won't make it up to Utah could still get a taste of what's on show. This year, it's been developed further into Sundance Selects label. This video-on-demand partnership means that five of the festival films - Michael Tully's Septien, Greg Aranaki's Kaboom, Brendan Fletcher's Mad Bastards, Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton's These Amazing Shadows and Joe Swanberg's Uncle Kent - will be available to watch in approximately 40 million homes across the US at the same time as they are premiering with the festival. That's a lot of audience potential, but Cooper insists it is not the chief driver of the project.

"It wasn't so much about the audience to tell you the truth," he says. "It was about the opportunity for the filmmaker. These filmmakers know that they're small and know that they are not thinking of that big theatrical distribution. They know that, the way the business is right now, that's a very slim chance. Small films do not get distributed. I wonder what the smallest film is we got 'real' distribution for... probably Precious. And to think that it might get Academy Award nominations is amazing."

Of course, we all know the success story of Precious, including its netting of not just nominations but two Oscars for screenplay and co-star Mo'Nique - but for most filmmakers the important thing in the first instance is to try to get their work noticed.

"What the filmmakers are telling me is that if you can pose us so that we can launch from a film festival, while all the heat is on their film, while the world is even turning a little bit of an eye towards independent film, if they can come in and say you can find my film right here, right now in your home, that's the way they can make more revenue. It's a revenue split for them with Youtube. We're not part of the revenue split, we just facilitate, really just the introduction, not the negotiating back and forth. They get a really good deal. They're selling at $3.99 and they get over 50 per cent or every hit, so everybody who loves their film, they're going to get close to $2. And for every guy who goes to see their film in the theatre they're not getting $2 off every seat that's there."

When it comes to the selection process, Cooper talks about the need to reach out to "pockets" of newer filmmakers working around the globe, insisting there is a need to infiltrate smaller film communities to find voices who are working outside of the larger studio machine.

He adds: "It's like coming to America and thinking you're going to discover a great new filmmaker in the Hollywood system. Sometimes you do, but most of the time you'll find them elsewhere."

And for 2010, the secret to a film's selection was one of the programmers really going into bat for a film.

"The staff and I decided that we weren't going to show any of the films unless one of the programmers actually loved it. I know it sounds simple, like, why wouldn't you do that all the time? It's not from trying to be commercial or anything. I think it stems from almost being too academic about the value of films. And a few films that we talked about for all these amazing reasons about why that film is important or should be liked. But if someone didn't love that film, it didn't get in, it got replaced by a film that some one did. Because in the end that's what's commericial, good and engaging and knowing it's engaging."

Sundance is known for bringing filmmakers through the ranks, with directors such as Andrea Arnold, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Duplass Brothers. But what happens if one of their alumni come to them with a bad film?

"I tell them no," insists Cooper. "It hurts. It's always hard to say no to those people. It's heartbreaking. If I had to do this film festival by myself, I don't think I could do it - bear the weight myself. I don't think anyone really knows how emotional that bit is."

Each year Sundance comes equipped with slogans and in 2010 it was all about rebellion - so does Cooper feel like one himself?

"I always feel rebellious," he says "I'm kind of a closet rebel. I like to look like I'm not a rebel but then do things that are rebellious, because, in truth, talking about it is not where it is. My favourite part is really the "Sundance reminded" part because that's where we really came into this year, becuase Sundance has had to remind itself what we are to our audiences and that meant we had to go out and talk to them and that's what I did March, April May and I sent out a lot of emails and got lots of emails back.

"But also we had to remind ourselves what we were and everybody knows who you are and why we do this all the way down to every volunteer, it's like you are building a belief in what we're doing. And as silly as that sounds, it works. "Every volunteer knows the greater story of what Sundance is trying to do."

Looking ahead into the future - and retirement is doubtless a long way off - but does Cooper have an idea about what he would ultimately like his legacy to the festival to be?

"This year was very simple - I wanted people just to feel different. A little bit more engaged and enlivened and I wanted to be able to maybe change and become known for being responsive and innovative - those are the words I would really be loved to be said to me. And that I've managed this festival through very interesting, changing times to be the best it can still be for independent filmmakers."

The times certainly continue to change. But with several of last year's Sundance films - including Winter's Bone, Restrepo, Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work - making waves both on the international and awards circuit, Cooper has made the best possible start to his tenure. Let's hope his rebellion continues.

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