January 14, 2014

Cover Story

Sundance Film Festival 30 Years in the Making

Storytellers broaden our minds, engage, provoke, inspire and ultimately, c...Read More

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Sundance Film Festival 30 Years in the Making

By Rachel Madison | Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

January 14, 2014

Storytellers broaden our minds, engage, provoke, inspire and ultimately, connect us.” Oscar-winning actor Robert Redford made these words immortal when he founded the Sundance Institute in Utah more than three decades ago as a way for storytellers—specifically filmmakers—to continuously connect the world to new ideas. Since then, the institute and subsequent programs, such as the Sundance Film Festival and Sundance Channel, have perpetually changed the film industry, both in Utah and across the world.

The Sundance Institute was founded in 1981, when Redford gathered friends and colleagues in the mountains of Utah to create an environment designed to foster independence, discovery and new voices in American film, says Sarah Pearce, co-managing director of the Sundance Institute. Two years later, the Sundance Film Festival was created as a program of the institute to provide a platform to connect audiences so people around the globe could see independent filmmakers’ work.

The institute’s mission—to support artists and connect audiences to their work—has remained steadfast over the last three decades. “One of the things that is so rewarding about working [at the Sundance Institute] is that we’ve stayed true to our mission from the original vision over the last 30 years,” she says. “We’re the same organization at our core. Each time we add a new program or initiative, it’s always with the same mission in mind.”

That mission is what has advanced the festival over the last 30 years to become the driving force it is today. This year’s festival, which takes place from Jan. 16 to 26, is a major milestone for the institute because it’s reached its 30th year. “The festival is an annual gathering place for the creative community to share work, exchange ideas and show films that we support,” Pearce says. “Oftentimes [the films] reflect what’s going on in the world, and that culture sets the tone for the year. We’re always looking ahead to what’s next in independent film.”

While “what’s next in independent film” is often a mystery from year to year, one thing that is certain is that the Sundance Film Festival has become a worldwide staple—as well as an economic and cultural powerhouse for the state of Utah.

Economic Impact

Jan Stambro, senior research economist for the Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Utah, has been analyzing the Sundance Film Festival’s economic impact to the state since 2009.

“We survey all the different geographic regions—Ogden, Salt Lake, Park City and Sundance,” she says. “We do random intercept surveys, where we approach people and ask if they would be willing to respond to our questions. We get good response rates, and I have somebody at each of the venues each day.”

Since 2009, the festival has provided an impact of about $375 million, says Laurie Hopkins, co-managing director of the Sundance Institute.

In 2013, the increase to Utah’s gross state product totaled $69.5 million, while the total spending by attendees came in at $56.7 million. Of this amount, nonresident spending totaled $52.2 million while Utah residents spent $4.6 million. Total spending per person averaged $1,234.60. Nonresidents spent an average of $1,734.85 per person during their stay and Utah residents spent an average of $287.61.

Over the last five years, Stambro says attendance numbers have remained steady, in the 40,000 range. In 2013, the total film festival attendance was 45,947. Of that number, 30,065 were non-Utah residents. A total of 16.2 percent of all attendees identified themselves as entertainment industry professionals. 

“In the first week, we get a lot more people from out of state, and as the festival goes on more people from Utah start to come,” Stambro says. About 36 percent of the non-Utah attendees were residents of three states—California, New York and Illinois.

Although more than 60 percent of 2013’s festival attendees were not from Utah, only about 3,900 people were from outside the United States. People from 22 countries traveled to the festival, with Canada, Australia and England having the three largest attendance numbers, respectively.

Hopkins says the institute is constantly working to discover how art can be an economic driver for the state. The institute works closely with several local vendors to help produce the film festival, and partners with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to host an event that brings business leaders together with the film industry as a platform to discuss the perks of having their businesses headquartered in Utah.

Hopkins says Utah doesn’t just benefit from the film festival during its 10-day run. “The examples of exposure we’re able to bring are amazing,” she says. “Each festival brings more than 1,000 press people to Utah from around the world, and they are all pretty amazed by Utah’s landscape beauty. We’re able to build awareness of Utah as a recreation and art destination.”

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