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The Sundance Kid Rides Again

4/23/2012 12:01 AM Eastern

Robert Redford was already a Hollywood legend in 1995 when he co-founded Sundance Channel, an
extension of his Sundance Institute and Film Festival, with Showtime Networks and Universal Studios as
partners. The idea was to create a network to showcase independent filmmakers and foreign movies rarely
seen on U.S. television. “When you add it all up, I’m banking on the fact that we’ve got something unique,”
Redford, 75, still the channel’s creative director, told Multichannel News a few weeks before Sundance’s
February 1996 launch. “Otherwise we wouldn’t do it.” Over the years, Sundance has been sold (to Cablevision
Systems, which spun it off as part of AMC Networks in 2011), converted from premium to digital
and added original reality shows (Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys), documentary series (Brick City and
the upcoming Push Girls) and performance shows (Spectacle With Elvis Costello) to the mix. It’s also now
branching into new scripted original series (Rectify, from the producers of Breaking Bad). Like sister channel,
IFC, though, Sundance retains a core of indie films — part of its identity Redford will underscore with
a new hosted series, Redford Presents, debuting April 28. The 13-episode, Saturday-night film strand will
include such titles as Wendy & Lucy, The Good Thief and Big Fan — movies Redford helped select as “interesting”
and “provocative,” yet ones viewers “may have missed”. Redford recently
took time out from post-production work in Santa Fe, N.M., on his directed-and-starred thriller The Company
You Keep
to talk with executive editor Kent Gibbons about the new strand, about the state of independent
film and about the evolution of Sundance Channel.

MCN: With Redford Presents, is there any common theme
that you’re trying to get across through these films?

Robert Redford: Only that it’s a continuation of what
we’ve done over the years, from the time I got involved
by starting the Sundance Lab program back in 1980. That
was a lab program for development for independent film
artists who were pretty well unsupported at that time.

There was no real category called independent film. It was
a category that existed mostly through government grants
with the [National Endowment for the Arts] or the [National
Endowment for the Humanities] at the time. And I saw a
possibility maybe as the film business that I was very much a
part of, the mainstream film business, was moving more and
more toward centralization and following the youth market.
You could pretty much predict what the films were going to
be. There were going to be blockbusters and franchise films.
Which is all good, but it might be at the defi cit of more independent
type films, which were my favorite films.

And so, through the ’70s, I was able to go between smaller
films, like The Candidate or Downhill Racer or Ordinary People,
and yet, at the same time, do larger films like The [Great] Gatsby
or The Way We Were [or] Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance
Kid
]. I had that pleasure, but that was going to evaporate with
the changes in the marketplace.

The other thing that was happening was that cable and video
were beginning to explode. And you could pretty well see
what the landscape may look like. There was going to be an explosion
of distribution possibilities but not a commensurate
amount of, you know, quality, more humanistic-type films.
That’s what led to the idea of the labs to create a place where
new artists with new voices would have a place to develop.

Well, five years later, once that was established, I could see
a problem, which was that there was no place for them to go.
The marketplace still was controlled by the relationship between
the studios and the theater owners. They weren’t creating
space for independent films. That led to the idea of the
[Sundance] festival. The festival was simply going to be a place
where there could be a community for the artists to gather, and
at least look at each other’s work and if we were lucky, maybe
somebody else would come.

Th en when the festival reached a point where it’s not only
going to survive, but succeed, I saw the chance to maybe take
it outside of 10 days in Park City in the middle of winter
to a wider audience and decided to do that electronically.
Which led to the idea of the channel.

That’s the through line, as it started. Then the idea was
once we were at the channel, how to keep developing this
and pushing it forward.

I think what I’m seeing today, which is encouraging, is that
it’s more relevant than ever before because of the strong demand
that’s beginning to show up from wider audiences.

MCN: How will the show format work? You’ll introduce
the films. Will you share some personal experiences
with the films?

RR: Well, between you and I, I do this because I’m the creative
head of the channel and I think it’s my job. I’m not necessarily
comfortable being Mr. Presenter or anything like
that. I’m not, you know, Rod Sterling introducing The Twilight
Zone
. It’s really my aligning myself with the filmmakers and
their films that sometimes were bypassed or not even seen.

There’s a huge category of, I guess, what you can call orphan
films that I think are worth seeing. So I’m happy to present those and stand in front
of them and say, look,
these are films that I feel,
and we being Sundance
feel, are films worth seeing.
That’s how the thing
was developed in terms
of Redford Presents — we
wanted to shed a light on
some of the more memorable
of those films.

I’m just glad to be able
to show some of these
films and say, look, you
may have missed these
films, they’re interesting, they’re provocative, they’re different
and maybe you can appreciate that.

MCN: How healthy is the independent film business today?

RR: The independent film business — I don’t know that
anything is healthy these days in our economy, but maybe
a few franchise projects from the studios. I think maybe
I’m just being overly hopeful but I do believe independent
film is growing in its acceptance and its notoriety.

I think that had a lot to do with some of the films that
we presented in our festival crossing over, over the years,
into the mainstream. I think that drew some attention to
it. However, having said that, the truth is that the business
is not in a great shape. Independent film is always in
tough shape, it’s always had a hard time and it’s still difficult. It’s just getting better; that’s my view.

MCN: The indie film industry has really embraced electronic
outlets — video on demand, notably. Has that been
a big positive impact?

RR: It’s been great, yeah. [IFC Films president] Jonathan
Sehring and I … We started
[pay video-on-demand
outlet] Sundance Selects,
which goes into territory
you’re talking about. And
I’m seeing tremendous
gains there, tremendous
gains. Because he can go to
these festivals and pull out
these unique films and put
them on Selects and you’ve
got video-on-demand [distribution].
All of it is taking
advantage of where the film business at large is moving.
And it’s currently, as you can see, being driven by high
technology.

MCN: What about the cable programming business? Is
there still room for independent voices in the cable and
satellite bundle?

RR: Well, you’re probably better off asking someone at the
channel whose job it is to be connected to that and to be negotiating
all the time. For me, from my point of view, it’s been
a tough business right from the get-go. Our prior bosses were
very different and they were very mainstream in their attitudes,
which meant that we were probably not going to get
a lot of opportunities to grow or to get either finance well or
distributed well. So it was a tough period of time.

And then Cablevision [now AMC Networks] came in,
and bought us and that created new opportunities for distribution
— because now we’re internationally kind of exploding
out there.

Also they are now supporting scripted [projects]. I think
scripted is going to
change things enormously
for us because
that allows us to really
put some new fresh
ideas to film.

Then there is also
our commitment to
documentaries, because
I’m a big believer
in documentaries,
that they will continue
to grow and become
almost to the point of
being equal to narrative
film. We’re able to use the platform to demonstrate our
belief in the importance of some of these smaller parts of
film that hadn’t gotten much attention in the last years.

MCN: Has the channel
accomplished all that
you hoped it would?

RR: No, it never does. I
mean nothing really accomplishes
what you dream
about when you start it because
you probably dream
bigger than you should.

I underestimated what
it was going to be like to
move from the nonprofit
into the profit with the
same concept, meaning
independent film. So I
was, in a sense, kind of protected
by … you know, the
Sundance Institute is nonprofit. So that means our lab program
and the festival is all nonprofit.

When I decided there was something worth expanding
upon and tried to take it into a broader landscape, I had
to step into what we call the corporate world. And I had to
learn that that’s a very often a different kind of language.
It’s certainly a different mindset, because it’s very much
bottom-line oriented. It’s about profit and so forth. And
that’s the way it is.

That was a fight for many years with the older group
that I was with because there was maybe a little bit too
much risk involved. They didn’t want to take too many
chances. So let’s just keep it low-profile, low-key, and see
what it does on its own. I had to learn that lesson by stepping
across the line from nonprofi t to profi t. And it’s been
a really interesting lesson. I think I’ve learned it.

MCN: Several years ago [2007], you hosted a “green
block” on Sundance Channel. That’s gone now, and now
the Discovery-owned Planet Green network is refocusing.
Can anybody do environmental-themed programming
and make it entertaining and work as a business?


RR: I believe it can [work]. But I think I may have to do
that independently, just make films. I have made a film
[Watershed, made with son Jamie Redford] that’s going to
premiere in Washington, D.C., in [late March]. It’s about
the Colorado River and watershed, and the issue of watershed
as it relates to the West. There have been films we’ve
done before about coal-fired power plants in Texas and so
forth. So I’m committed to that, because that’s just a personal
objective of mine, the importance of the environment
and so forth. So we’ll use whatever means we can.

But with few exceptions like Al Gore’s film or The Cove
or films like that, all of which we’ve shown at our festival,
[mainstream environmental films] have not received the
support that maybe I would hope they could. But we’re going
to keep doing it. I’m going to keep doing it because I believe
that the issue is getting more and more intense and
the polarization around the issue is now more and more
obvious, which is painful
to watch.

I mean when somebody
denies certain things that
science tells us are true,
and they use some bogus
force to say now it isn’t, then
it’s sad. So all you can do is
do what you can do, is just
make more and more films
that you can make about the
importance of the balance
in our environmental preservation.

MCN: Your bios say that
your first movie role was
in War Hunt in 1962. That
sounds like 50 years ago
to me.

RR: It feels like 60; it feels
like 60. That was the first
film. It was a little blackand-
white independent
film that United Artists
made. It was $300,000. It
was in Topanga Canyon,
Calif., over three weeks.
Black and white. Sydney
Pollack played my commanding
officer and he and I became friends on that film
and stayed friends the rest of his life, and did several films
together. But it all started with War Hunt.

MCN: Any plans to celebrate that milestone, 50 years?

RR: What, by asking for a re-release of War Hunt? [Laughs.]
I don’t think the channel will be showing it, but you’ll have
to ask the channel that. That might be a little self-serving.
Look, I don’t regret anything I’ve done. It’s all been grist to
the mill; it’s all been stepping stones forward, but always
willing to take risks. I think that’s been a large part of my
life and we try to make that part of the Sundance picture
that you move forward by taking risks. And not all of them
work, but it’s worth doing.

WHAT REDFORD’S PRESENTING

NEW YORK — As Sundance Channel’s
co-founder and creative director,
Robert Redford has been on
the channel’s air before. He hosted
a “green block” of environmentalthemed
programming a few years
ago. He was featured (with the late
Paul Newman) in an episode of
Iconoclasts in 2005. And he has
participated in Sundance festivalrelated
programming.

But Sarah Barnett, the channel’s
general manager, said the time felt right to recruit him for a
new role, emphasizing Sundance’s foundation of independent
film, which still fills more than two-thirds of the airtime.

We will never abandon our roots and the inspiration for
this channel, which is all about film,” Barnett said. “So it
seemed like the most brilliant, simple and overlooked idea
to actually use Robert Redford himself to shine a light on
films that we think people will get a lot out of.”

Some of the films will be better known than others, she
said, but all will “fall under the general heading of risktaking,
which defi nes independent fi lm making.”

Films featured in Redford Presents, according to the
42-million-home channel, are: Wendy & Lucy, The Good
Thief
, Domino, The Crucible, Mammoth, The Imperialists Are
Still Alive
, I Hate Valentine’s Day, Blue Velvet, Big Fan, The
Deep End
, Gigantic, Thumbsucker and Colin Fitz Lives!

— Kent Gibbons

September