A History of the Sundance Film Festival


The Sundance Film Festival has brought not only fame to Utah, but also a sense of culture and better knowledge of the film industry. Marked as one of the biggest independent film festivals the US has to offer, Sundance brings millions of people from around the world to Utah every January. The festival showcases upcoming productions written and directed by filmmakers throughout the world.

Originally called the Utah/US Film Festival, Sundance was founded by Sterling Van Wagenen and John Earle as an attempt to bring filmmakers to Utah. Van Wagenen, a Brigham Young University film school graduate, and Earle, a Utah State Film Commissioner, believed Utah was the place to bring a film festival. Their reasoning? The two partners wanted to bring something different to audiences that wasn’t the Hollywood flashy lights; they desired a bigger audience and films that weren’t usually shown. (Smith)

Like any successful organization, a board of directors was needed. Van Wagenen turned to his cousin’s husband and Utah resident Robert Redford. Redford held the title of the board’s inaugural chairman while Earle provided the funding through the Utah Film Commission. Funding was also provided through donations from wealthy acquaintances and industry sponsors.

In September 1978 the first festival premiered in Salt Lake City. As Redford had already established a name in the industry, his association with the festival led to big-name companies’ interest with the festival. Despite some shows that harvested huge crowds, the festival left the team $40,000 in debt. As debt is seen as negative, the team turned it positive as it influenced them to keep the festival running in order to make money. (Gaydos)

The entrepreneurs made plans for festivals to come but little could be done if their patterns of falling into debt didn’t change.

It wasn’t until planning for the Utah/US Film Festival, set for March 1980, that director and board of directors member Sydney Pollack spoke out with a what-would-be-monumental suggestion. Pollack suggested the team “ought to move the festival to Park City and set it in the wintertime.” He knew it would be “the only film festival in the world held in a ski resort during ski season, and Hollywood would beat down the door to attend.” (Craig)

With that the decision was made; the event would move to Park City and mark the start of a worldwide tradition.

Because of the move, the festival rescheduled its 1980 event for the third week of January 1981. Taking place during this time of year would become permanent. [citation needed]

The 1981 festival proved the word “setback” only applied to the date of its event. The third annual festival had its largest programs of independent films and greatest turnout. Not only came change in location but change in its name. The once Utah/US Film Festival would become known as United States Film and Video Festival. [citation needed]

Throughout the years the festival only progressed. The program established several different sections for various categories including documentary, short films, video art and movies made for television. Box-office numbers were up and the debt only continued to lessen; the men had stamped their place into the culture of film. “Each year Sundance became more crowded, more frantic, more Hollywood. Suddenly, everyone had cell phones glued to their ears.” (Biskind)

With the amount of success it seemed as if things were fine to stay where they were, until a meeting in 1985 called for change that would imprint permanency. In a meeting with members of the Sundance Institute and the festival’s board (made up of initial members Van Wagenen and Earle), discussion of new festival ownership was brought to the table. Festival program director Lory Smith came up with the idea of the Sundance Institute taking ownership. With clean convincing, it was turned over to the Institute. (de Valck)

The two entrepreneurs’ decision yielded to be wise yet again. The 1985 festival contained over 80 features that included an international film section. By the end of the 1980s the event was receiving great publicity through the press and growing in great demand. Films that would later be considered as classics were presented. Two hundred films such as Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge and Robin William’s Seize the Day were screened for audiences. (Smith)

The end of the 1980s not only brought groundbreaking films to the screen but also a new name for the festival- the Sundance Film Festival.

As society grew into the 1990s it also grew more interested in independent films. Because of this Sundance’s popularity grew as well. Films that were being screened continued to exceed the public’s expectations. Quentin Tarantino’s famous Reservoir Dogs was screened in 1992 while 1993 brought Robert Rodriguez’s award-winning El Mariachi. (Smith)

It seemed as if year after year brought new record attendances. By 1997 it was reported that Park City was making over $20 million a year, thanks to the event. (Craig)

Throughout the years the Sundance Film Festival has gone from a small-budget festival into a huge media extravaganza. The festival has transformed Utah into one of the major destinations for people to go to from around the world.

The 20th century brought independent films that would be talked about not so independently; films such as Super Size Me by Morgan Spurlock and Napoleon Dynamite would hit the screens. More big-name actors and actresses would appear in these Sundance films, such as Keira Knightley and award-winning Adrien Brody, because the festival had become so respected. (Turan)

Today Sundance is known not only for its movie screenings, but also for its parties, concerts and big names that make appearances. Sundance has become a culture that has helped make Park City thrive. Once small and on the verge of failing, the Sundance Film Festival has marked its name as one of the most important and demanding independent film festivals in the world.

Melanie Holbrook is a senior at The University of Utah majoring in mass communication-journalism and minoring in business.



Lory Smith, Party in a Box: The Story of the Sundance Film Festival (Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1999).

Steven Gaydos, The Variety Guide to Film Festivals: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide to Film Festivals Around the World (New York: Berkley Books, 1998).

Benjamin Craig, “History of the Sundance Film Festival,” SundanceGuide.net.

Peter Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

Marijke de Valck, Film Festivals: From European Geopolitics to Global Cinephilia (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2007).

Kenneth Turan, Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2003).