Once upon a time in Park City

Barbara Bretz
Park City Museum
A woman talks to Robert Redford at a gathering during the 1985 festival. A star-struck onlooker loiters in the background.
Park City Historical Society & Museum, Park Record Collection

Forty-two years as a film festival, thirty-nine years in Park City, twenty-nine years as The Sundance Film Festival… no matter how you count it up, a ton of independent films have premiered in our community.

In September 1978, the Utah/U.S. Film Festival began in Salt Lake City and by 1981 the name changed to the U.S. Film and Video Festival, the month changed to January and the location changed to Park City. In 1984, Sundance Institute took over management and by 1991 the name change to Sundance Film Festival was official.

Named for the character Robert Redford portrayed in ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid,’ the festival was nurtured by Redford from the beginning. His star power attracted the attention and participation of Hollywood and spurred growth going forward.

The Sundance Institute was founded in 1981 to nurture filmmakers and assist them in developing their projects and honing their craft. The creation and expansion of the small festival was driven by the need to have a launch pad for these projects.

It didn’t take long for things to change. What began as a venue for low-key, low-budget independent films exploded in the early 2000s into one for celebrities and their entourages to be seen. It wasn’t a comfortable match and festival directors made the all-important directive in 2007 to keep the ‘Focus On Film’.

The film festival has expanded in every way possible and Cheryl Soshnik, a Sundance volunteer for her 14th year has witnessed it all.

“The addition of more screening venues is the biggest change,” she said. “Which of course means more people in town. But even with that growth, I’ve watched the refinement of the transportation system and increased use of buses. I even see movie stars on the bus now.”

Gone too, are the days attendees – even locals – waited in line overnight for a chance at tickets or lined up hours ahead of time in hopes of getting in to see a film. Waiting lines are virtual these days, and although it can still be time consuming and sometimes frustrating, it is done from the comfort of your home or office.

“Adding the eWaitlist system a couple years ago has greatly improved the wait list process: no more waiting outside in blizzards for hours to get a good number,” explained Soshnik.

As complicated and expensive as the pass and ticket process can be today, it’s amazing to think that in the early days of the festival, Redford stood outside the Egyptian Theatre and invited passersby into free screenings.

Projects that debut are also not just for the big screen anymore. Titles premiering at Sundance may show up as made-for-TV movies, episodic TV shows, or on digital platforms.

Geoff Gilmore was Director of the festival from 1991 until 2009 when he left for New York and the Tribeca Film Festival. John Cooper has headed of the festival since then and 2020 will be his final year in that position. The role of ‘Director Emeritus’ has been created for him and he will focus on the 40th anniversary of the Sundance Institute in 2021 and various special projects, including the new building to be part of the Park City Arts & Culture District.

As Cooper steps down and as Sundance Institute moves into its 40th year it will be a logical time to not only look back, but to evaluate the core of the festival and whether changes are necessary to keep it purposeful and successful.

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival takes place Jan. 23 through Feb. 2. To catch up on some history of the fest and its films, head over to the Park City Museum to catch their exhibits on Park City’s theaters and the origins of Sundance Film Festival.


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