Lights, camera, Sundance!

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival opened for business on Thursday, and if first impressions can be trusted, there’s a definite feeling of change in the biting mountain air as the event prepared to roll out its 36th annual installment.

One immediate edit was the decision by festival officials to leave the traditional opening day press conference on the cutting room floor. Instead, members of the media were sent a press kit chock full of information and video statements by Sundance Institute principals.

Additionally, and more importantly, adjustments also are in progress. Festival founder Robert Redford continues to step farther back into the shadows, which he first announced he would be doing last year at this time, and this year’s independent showcase will mark John Cooper’s final stint as director.

“It is our great joy and privilege to help deliver these thought-provoking stories out into the world over the next 10 days,” Redford said in his welcome letter, “and we hope you will join us in continuing the important conversations they spark in the year ahead.”

In his video statement, Cooper alluded to change being a constant in the state of Sundance and noted it would be impossible to offer any eloquent summation to his 30 years at the festival, including his 12-year run as director.

2020 Sundance Film Festival - Day 1

Barricades are placed in front of the Egyptian Theatre on opening day of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

“If anything, we’ve learned — as Bob (Redford) has often reminded us — that change is the only thing that we can count on,” said Cooper, who will take on an emeritus role at the Sundance Institute. “We have evolved. We’ve built new theaters, we’ve adopted new technology. There’s a revolution in distribution going on, but through it all we’ve supported artists, we’ve opened our doors for millions of new storytellers to come in and be creative.”

And those storytellers are pouring through the Sundance doors in record numbers. Programmers plowed through an incredible 15,100 submissions, eventually whittling those down to the 244 accepted features that make up this year’s program. Both are new Sundance benchmarks.

As one might imagine, working your way through that many entries is no guilty-pleasure, double-feature evening at the cinema. Kim Yutani, the festival’s director of programming, spoke to the challenge of curating the festival. She said her programming crew represents a “broad swath of backgrounds, and we all have different experiences, different tastes.”

That, she said, allows the team to look at submissions from varying points of view and perspectives, leading to some passionate conversations as decisions are finalized.

“We approach program discussions with respect for each other,” Yutani said, “but also bearing in mind what kind of program we want to put together for the best festival possible, while curating a program that reflects the culture, the moment, and the state of global storytelling. As a festival and an institute, we will always stand on the side of independent storytellers.”

With the overall festival theme of “Imagined Futures,” Yutani said there were some definite sub-themes or patterns that can be recognized in this year’s slate of films. Those themes include families (both biological and chosen), the concept of home (and its limitations) and power of individuals to make real change in the world.

“What struck me and my team about this year’s program, when we stepped back to consider it as a whole, is how distinctive each work is, and how their individual voices resonate and engage with each other,” Yutani said. “But each work that tackles those concepts does so in a wildly individual way — which is a core tenet of the festival.”

Some additional changes, which Yutani said stemmed from past panels and bold conversations at the festival, include a focus on sustainable accessibility, presenting more films with closed captions and providing more American Sign Language interpreters.

“You have to be open to different perspectives, and be open to letting them change the way you think and the way you engage with the world,” Yutani said.

Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, said the festival is the perfect place to be at this tumultuous moment in culture.

In this election year, Putnam said, freedom of the press and freedom of expression are facing serious threats, both in the U.S. and around the world. And while audiences have a seemingly infinite amount of entertainment options at their disposal, that content is being selected by globally dominant entities or served up by algorithms.

“So when choices about what to watch are made for people by forces that aren’t always visible and can’t be controlled, not only do we miss out on challenging ideas and great art — it’s dangerous,” Putnam said. “This is a moment that demands our participation — as audiences, as artists and as citizens. This is a critical time for each of us to question why things are the way they are. To ask whose voices are being marginalized, and why. To notice whose perspectives we aren’t seeing and why not. And to recognize that media has worth far beyond its market value, or what it makes at the box office.”

2020 Sundance Film Festival - Day 1

Snowboarders cross a bridge advertising the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

The festival was slated to open Thursday evening with double showings of “Crip Camp” at the Eccles Theatre and The Ray in Park City. The documentary focuses on a camp for disabled teens, just down the road from Woodstock, where former campers eventually became activists who shaped the future of the disability rights movement. Also highlighting Thursday night’s schedule at the Eccles was “Miss Americana,” the new Taylor Swift documentary.

The festival hits full swing on Friday as it heads into the always chaotic opening weekend. The festival continues through Feb. 2.

In his welcome letter, Redford spoke of the magic of powerful cinema, which all Sundance visitors hope to experience during their visit to the 2020 festival at venues in Park City, Salt Lake City or at Sundance Mountain Resort in Provo Canyon.

“We all file into the theaters here at the Sundance Film Festival as individuals, our minds preoccupied by the things we have going on in our day-to-day lives and our concerns about the wider world we live in,” Redford said. “But something magical happens when the lights finally dim, the chatter quiets down, the phones go dark, and the curtain opens. From the moment the images begin to flicker across the screens before us, we become one, experiencing for the very first time the deeply personal visions of uncompromising independent creators from all walks of life.”

So power down your cellphones and pass the popcorn, Sundance 2020 is now in session.

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