New Frontier expands its orbit
January 15, 2016
On the brink of celebrating New Frontier’s 10th anniversary, Shari Frilot is hard-pressed to come up with specific anecdotes from past years. The curator of the Sundance Film Festival’s incubator for movie-making innovation, has not one tale about catering to mad scientists, reality-shattering installations or ushering nervous audiences through mazes of futuristic experiences — even though each year has been chock full of each.
She is too busy sniffing out the next new thing.
"It is hard for me to pull out one story because I am more forward thinking than backward thinking," Frilot says, offering instead a thoughtful riff about a coincidental outcropping of whales among this year’s presentations and pondering whether that signifies a larger crossover between marine biology and technology.
"When that kind of thing happens it encourages me that we are on the right path. My radar goes up and makes me think about what I will see going into 2017?" she says, apologizing if the digression doesn’t really answer the question.
And that is before the curtain even rises on the 2016 festival.
According to Frilot, the New Frontier concept began percolating at Sundance in the late 1990s when current festival director John Cooper lured her over to Sundance from the experimental film festival she was running in New York. Their conversations grew more urgent in 2003 and 2004 as a response to the ascendance of YouTube and to a handful of underground festivals nipping at Sundance’s heels.
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At the time, the Sundance Film Festival was suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. After branding itself as an alternative to the film industry establishment in Hollywood and New York, the festival’s success gave rise to accusations that it was becoming too mainstream. In response, Sundance organizers redoubled their commitment to nurturing new work and turned to Frilot to keep that pipeline open.
"People were saying, ‘Shari we would like to build something that re-roots Sundance into something more grassroots, artistic, because the festival is really taking off," she recalls.
According to Frilot, YouTube’s exponential growth indicated that "the role for our filmmakers at the festival was going to radically change because films were not just films where you sat and were entertained, you were actually using films to learn about stuff and to communicate about yourself."
In 2007, Sundance officially introduced a new category. It was dubbed New Frontier and billed as celebrating "experimentation and the convergence of film and art as an emerging hotbed for new cinematic ideas." Frilot was charged with running the show.
The New Frontier venue debuted in the basement of the Main Street Mall, down a dark, twisting staircase into a cavernous space below Main Street. Frilot turned it into a lounge — featuring the appropriately named Rabbit Hole Café — which was surrounded by alcoves for installations and panel discussions and a small theater. And that is where many brave and curious souls first learned about Second Life, avatars, virtual pandemics and video mapping.
"It was something different than what anybody would expect. We wanted to create an atmosphere that was the opposite of bright sunshine and the mountains and the snow. We wanted to create a lounge environment to relax people because we were going to show them a lot of really challenging work."
Frilot said the strategy was to offer "a new way of experiencing cinematic stories through their bodies more than their brains."
In those early years, she measured New Frontier’s success from audience feedback.
"A lot of people said ‘I don’t know what this is but it’s so cool.’ That was the biggest success for us that audiences were saying stuff like that."
The realization that viewers were OK with being baffled by unfamiliar mixtures of media emboldened Frilot’s efforts to curate the following year’s collection.
"I gotta tell you, it is pure instinct," she says of scouting the outer perimeter of the film world. "It is pure instinct. It is such an overwhelming and energetic scene. I walk through three worlds — I am traveling through the art world, the film world and then I travel through new technology scenes — fairs, studios and media labs. I pay attention to things that repeat across my path because if it is taking place in one place and somewhere else, it is obviously connected to something larger."
Thanks to Frilot’s keen radar and eclectic tastes (at Harvard she studied engineering and political science before becoming an artist) and to Sundance’s willingness to take a risk, New Frontier outgrew the basement on Main Street. It moved to the Miners Hospital building in City Park and then to a bigger venue — a vacant lumberyard on Kearns Boulevard.
According to Frilot, each new location offered challenges and opportunities. The lumberyard, for instance, allowed her to present the Klip Collective’s large scale projection mapping "which was breathtaking and even though it was hard to get to it really helped the profile of the program . With the large-scale art we were able to get people into the immersive experience."
The enthusiastic audience response experience, leveraged later efforts to bring virtual reality, another powerful immersive medium, to the forefront.
This year, New Frontier expands to three locations transcribing an orbit around the heart of the festival on Main Steet. Frilot and her team will present three feature-length films, 30 virtual-reality projects and 11 installations (including another Google VR viewer giveaway) at the Claimjumper and at the Gateway Center. There will also be a purpose-built tent on Swede Alley to house Chris Milk’s interactive installation: The Treachery of Sanctuary.
One key aspect of New Frontier, though, has not changed. The exhibits are free and open to the public.
"New Frontier has always been the place at the festival where we are aggressively experimenting and to experiment you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to open yourself up to new perspectives, new approaches. So it is important to diversify the people who are inside. That open welcome mat is what brings people from the tech world who wouldn’t come to the festival otherwise. They can find a legitimate point of access and be part of it.
"It is also an attempt to bring a new generation to the festival to really blow it out and expand the Sundance culture," said Frilot, who is already sending feelers out into the universe to find material for New Frontier’s next decade.