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From poster-boy to director of programming

Alisha SelfOf the Record staff

As Trevor Groth prepares for his first Sundance Film Festival as director of programming, he is reminded of his earliest Sundance experience.

Between graduating from high school and starting college, the Salt Lake City native volunteered to hang movie posters in exchange for tickets to film screenings. "That year was when I really fell in love with the world of film festivals and thought maybe it could be something I could do for a career," he says.

As a child of the first generation to be able to watch movies at home, Groth says he developed a passion for films at an early age. "I just love the magic of watching films. For me, it’s a way of transporting yourself to other worlds and places," he explains.

While attending the University of Utah, he snagged an internship with the Sundance development department, a job that entailed among other things working the door at Festival parties and delivering gift baskets.

Meanwhile, Groth volunteered his time at the filmmakers’ lab, where he bonded with longtime Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore and future predecessor John Cooper.

From there, Groth climbed the proverbial ladder and last spring, after Gilmore announced he was leaving Sundance, Cooper moved up from director of programming and Groth stepped into Cooper’s shoes.

In his new position, Groth heads up the programmers who select the films for the Festival. He describes the transition from his previous position as senior programmer as "very smooth."

His experience in approaching the Festival from different angles helps, too. "I’ve done just about everything that you can do for the festival," he says. "I have a complete understanding of the nuts and bolts that go into putting on the festival, and I think that helps inform my decisions about everything."

The bulk of the programmers’ work begins with the film submissions. Each submission goes through a complex process as it makes its way to the programmers’ "in" or "out" bins.

What makes the process unique, Groth says, is that all of the programmers contribute to the decisions for every section. "It is very collaborative," he says. "I think that’s why we’ve been able to stay as unpredictable as we’ve been over the years." If one person was responsible for programming a specific section year in and year out, audiences would come to know what to expect, he noted.

So what is it, exactly, that gets a film coveted screen-time at Sundance? "What wins out in our decisions is passionate responses to a film," Groth says. "If a film can surprise me after the tens of thousands of films that I’ve seen over the years, that’s really saying something."

The one trend that Groth and his fellow programmers noticed this year is an increase in the number of submissions, which rounded out at 3,724 feature-length films and 6,092 short films. Despite the recession, more and more people are getting the opportunity to make films, and that means a larger pool to choose from, he explains. "It’s great because you have a wide range of voices in that mix."

A new component of this year’s Festival is the NEXT category, which gives low-budget filmmakers the same clout as those with more resources. "Starting last year, we saw a number of very high-quality films being made in the low-budget realm," says Groth. "We wanted to carve out a place in the festival so that those filmmakers working with more limited resources didn’t get squeezed out. They’re a vital part of what the festival’s about and has always been."

Groth says the thing he is most excited about is the Festival’s new initiatives, including the three-part opening night lineup and Sundance Film Festival USA, a special night of screenings at theatres across the country. "I can’t wait for everyone to see the films and to see how these new elements work," he says.

During his stay in Park City, Groth says that traveling from theatre to theatre to introduce films will occupy most of his time. However, his hectic schedule does facilitate face-time with the true beneficiaries of the Festival. "What I love about that is it’s a way of really connecting with the filmmakers," he says.

And once the Festival is over, it’s back to the drawing board for next year. "I think there’s a potential for this to be a real golden age of independent film," he says. "We’ve never had opportunities like we have now to both make films and, because of technology, to exhibit films. I think Sundance can be sort of a vanguard in this new era and help carve out a path for these films to connect with audiences."


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