For the first time, the press conference was moderated by Salt Lake Tribune Film Critic Sean P. Means, who filtered questions from the audience.

When asked about how the recent elementary-school shootings in Newtown, Conn., affected his views about gun-use in film, Redford said it was encouraging that a dialog about gun regulations has begun.

"I think it's appropriate and overdue," he said.

Joining Redford were Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, which provides a year-round venue for filmmakers to interact with other filmmakers and work on their projects, and John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival.

Putnam likened the festival and the institute's mission as a journey of discovery when it comes to filmmaking.

"We have 51 first-time feature filmmakers in the program of 119 films this year," she said. "We're proud that 22 of the films in the festival program came through our (filmmaking) labs and programs in the institute.

"We also support more than 400 artists with critical creative support every year and we award $2 million in grants every year to documentarians and all the other categories," she said. "To introduce those artists is exciting."

On that same theme, the festival itself will feature films from 32 different countries this year, said Cooper.

"I'm excited about the quality of work this year," he said. "I really love the notion we've always had of established filmmakers mixing with the first-time directors. There is magic to that. It's part of the alchemy that makes the Sundance Film Festival really special because they do meet and become a group force."

After watching thousands of submissions, Cooper said the world of independent film is healthy.

"It shows a lot of people are thinking that independent film as a form of expression," he said. "It's a powerful medium."

Sometimes people don't like what is being expressed.

Earlier this week, the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based conservative organization, accused the Sundance Film Festival of being "anxious to pervert the normal human impulses for the sake of finding your sexual identity," and asked the Utah residents to shun the event because it doesn't reflect the state's morals.

"Sometimes the narrowest minds bark the loudest," Redford said. "We can ignore them or remind them it's a free country and to read the Constitution."

He reiterated that the festival offers the audience a diverse program of films.

"It's up the audience to choose which film they want to see," he said.

Redford added that the Sundance Film Festival is a major contributor to the Utah economy.

"We bring in $80 million in 10 days," he said.

Politics aside, Cooper said he couldn't wait to get things started.

"I feel like I'm sitting on a powder keg of talent that needs to explode," he said.

Sundance Film Festival continues through Jan. 27. Due to the events, there is limited parking on Main St., but additional free shuttles and buses are available. For more information about the festival, visit www.parkcity.org /festival