With this, his 22nd film festival, no one (save for founder Robert Redford) has been more intrinsically bound to Sundance than John Cooper. His tenure actually pre-dates Sex, Lies and Videotape, often cited as the turning point in Sundance’s now two-decade reign as the world’s best indie festival. Cooper (employees and volunteers rarely use his first name) says his love affair with Park City was written in the stars. “I actually stumbled” upon Sundance during a layover flight in Utah,” he remembers. “I was on my way back to New York from San Francisco and met someone in a bar who asked if I’d like to volunteer at the festival. I was involved in theater at the time and the whole do-it-yourself approach of independent film really spoke to me.”

Twenty years later, Sundance’s D.I.Y. craziness continues to speak to Cooper despite a wave of changes for independent film. From the heady days of multi-million dollar bidding wars to the slow attendance of post 9/11 and recession, he’s seen it all. Few were surprised, in 2009, when Cooper succeeded Geoff Gilmore (who had led Sundance for 19 years) as director. But the spotlight on how Cooper will keep Sundance relevant in indie film’s most challenging times (the closing of many specialty divisions and declining theatrical play deals for starters) has been intense. On the eve of the 2010 festival, The New York Times ran an article wondering if Cooper’s new tenure will “redefine” the indie film industry.
ICG Executive Editor David Geffner talked with Sundance’s top man about his favorite memories, and why he’s more passionate than ever to lace up his winter boots after so many Januaries in the Park City slush and snow.

ICG: Did the year of the Sex, Lies and Videotape screening feel like a tipping point? John Cooper: Not exactly. It was around the time companies like October Films, Orion, Strand Releasing got started, and while we all felt there was a new possibility [for indie films] brewing, you had to keep your expectations, financial and otherwise, small. The biggest message being sent was that there was an audience for a different type of film.

Did you feel prepared once the indie boom hit? We had to do a lot of catch-up. This was a small mountain town with limited places to screen a movie. The Eccles Theater wasn’t yet built, and it was before we even had The Library as a venue. The biggest theater we had was The Egyptian, which is, like, 350 seats. We also had to create a new structure for the huge amount of submissions we began receiving. Most of those were in 16mm so when we got a film in 35 it was a big decision what format to screen. [Laughs] You ask whether we knew something important was happening: I vividly remember sitting in a room and saying, ‘If [Sundance] is ever mentioned in The New York Times we will have made it! That was our benchmark for cultural significance.

Fairly ironic, given The New York Times article that ran before your first festival as director. To paraphrase: “putting the indie back in Sundance; a return to tough, arty filmmaking.” That year in the press was difficult for me, because they wanted to know why Geoff left, and all kinds of other things. But, basically, what I wanted to show were films that were authentic. I felt some of the films we had in years past, sort of made for cable type projects with stars and some commercial attributes, just didn’t pop, for lack of a better term. Now, obviously there’s a lot of pressure in this job – from sales reps, agents, etc. But I’m not here to build relationships with industry people because this is my job. Not some other industry job down the road. Redford said it best when he told me we have to “keep our chops.” I completely agree.

You began at Sundance getting prints and wrangling filmmakers. When did programming come in? Not long after I started as a volunteer, they handed me a box of 250 short films and said, “see if you can do something with these.” I shared an office with [Programming Directors] Tony Safford and Alberto Garcia, and I kind of forced them to add two programs of shorts to the schedule. [Laughs] I guess I was pushy. I programmed shorts on my own until 2000, when I was able to hire Trevor [current director of programming Trevor Groth] as my very first employee! I think we had more than 7,000 shorts submitted this year, and I’m quite proud to say I was part of that beginning.

What other lasting memories of that first decade do you have? Getting our first-ever woman programmer [Beth B.] and gay filmmaking really beginning to pop. Longtime Companion winning the Audience Award was a huge shock to everyone. What it made you realize, and this is what the 90’s were about, is that the audiences weren’t much different than us, the people working at Sundance. I remember playing this crazy drag queen movie [Vegas in Space] in the midnight section and being terrified no one would show up. I walk in and the place is packed with drag queens from all over Utah! I went wow; this is amazing. You think you’re plodding along at this little festival and something like that reveals this kind of creative force that’s got a life of its own. You could see and feel it.

What was the first feature you programmed? Slacker. For some reason they always gave me the edgy, youth stuff [laughs], even though I was older than most of the people I worked with. Slacker was three hours long, and I said there’s kind of a cool movie in here, but it’s so long it just wears you out. We didn’t accept it that first year. We gave [director Richard Linklater] our notes, and he came back the next year with a shorter cut that was wildly successful. Then a few years later Kevin Smith came in with Clerks, and you really got the sense filmmakers were pushing each other. One person would take a chance, like Todd Haynes with Poison, and everyone else would be inspired to break the rules.

You became director of programming in the late 90’s. Did the films begin to reflect your own tastes from that point on? We all worked collectively, and still do to this day. Working with Geoff [Gilmore] was like being in this weird marriage. Geoff’s knowledge of film is so broad [Gilmore was the former head of the UCLA Film Archives], that he was a better director of programming, in some ways, while I would put all this energy into making everyone’s experience on the mountain great. As for my own tastes, I’m not an academic. I’m not really concerned about how something fits into cinema history so much as just getting blown away on an instinctual level. Redford knew that about me, so he and Geoff looked to me for this pop culture kind of barometer. In The Company of Men was a good example. We had huge arguments about whether it was too disrespectful to women, and I said that was [director] Neil LaBute’s point. To show these guys, who were very real, as they are. It was part of our growing pains – to decide what the culture could consume, like violence against women or gays. You feel that responsibility to the community when there’s a backlash, but at the same time, our mission is to represent the filmmaker’s vision.

The Excellence in Cinematography Award, for both Documentary and Narrative, was first given in 1987, three years after Sundance started. Not many other festivals can claim such support for the visual image. It’s always been something we believe in because of what cinematographers bring to the process. It’s a thrill to see a DP come with their first film to Sundance, or to the Labs, and then return a few years later. Before you know it, they are working on big Hollywood movies. Bobby Bukowski, Nancy Schreiber, Ellen Kuras, of course, are some of the names that come to mind. Robert Elswit, who first came with Paul Thomas Anderson and Hard Eight, which was originally called Sydney. I’m proud that Sundance has created an alternate path for these kinds of artists, a bit separate from the old model of starting in television and working your way up to a feature.

I was at the Eccles Theater for Sundance’s first digital screening, Things Behind the Sun, shot by Guild member Terry Stacey. Have new technologies been a game-changer? It’s lowered the costs of production and made it easier, to some extent. Before digital projection, filmmakers who shot in Super 16mm would have to go to 35 before they were ready. I remember testing those digital projectors for that screening – working with different companies to find a technology we had complete confidence in, and that we could afford. When we went digital we wanted to make sure we could sustain it in every theater and not ghettoize them into some special program. At least 75 percent of the films we screen now are digital. Of course lifting all those cans of 35mm film back in the day was a great workout. I was like, so that’s what a muscle looks like! [Laughs]

It’s a challenging time for indie movies. Yes, and that’s an offshoot, I suppose, of how quickly the movement grew. The scale was not right – both in the making and in the distribution. People began paying too big of a price for independent films, and when they didn’t perform in the market, they were considered failures. Although, last year was our biggest sales year ever. Of the 100 features up for distribution, 80 were sold. People say: yeah, but did as much money change hands as in past years, and the answer is probably not; although I don’t know the specifics of the deals. For me, the fact so many movies got sold is good because it means the scale of what’s made to what gets seen is in proportion.

Many of those deals might end up being online only. Yes, and that’s a new area for filmmakers, especially those who want to release right away and keep the buzz going. We actually have a system in place for films selected to Sundance that want to self-distribute. They sign a standard deal and the films are streamed via Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, etc.

So what do you say to those who still come to Sundance hoping for that big theatrical deal? A lot of filmmakers I’m hearing from want sustainability, as opposed to the big flashy career. They don’t want to wait five years in-between movies because, honestly, how many movies do you have in you for a lifetime? Kevin Smith’s recent approach with Red State is a fascinating example of a new approach to distribution. People laughed at him when he was up here talking about it last year, but he kind of did it.

Interview by David Geffner / Photo courtesy of The Sundance Institute