John Cooper ponders everything from dismissing “George Washington” to tolerating “Hounddog” in a wide-running meeting about his inheritance.
John Cooper wasn’t so certain about “Honeyland.” A year prior to the narrative about a Macedonian beekeeper would score two Oscar designations, the future Sundance World Cinema Documentary determination didn’t reverberate with the celebration chief as he entered his last year.
“I just didn’t get that film when I watched it,” said Cooper from his Sundance office during the 2020 edition of the festival, as he ended his 11-year run overseeing the event. “And I didn’t have to get it, because everyone else in the room loved it. It’s hard to find 125 films that you love, that you totally respect. I don’t pick all these films. I play the room.”
Cooper’s authentic affirmations about the defects of the programming procedure address the erratic idea of running a celebration, and the amount of its effect starts with distracted in the background banter. Every year’s program welcomes a decent amount of dramatization — what will play well, sell large, or drop with a crash — and that vulnerability infuses the involvement in its very own sensational account.
As he wrapped up his residency managing the celebration following three many years of programming, Cooper considered on how every year’s program developed. “I’m happy to be that way. It’s my job to filter the people in the room. Sometimes there are programmers in the room that love a film and we don’t show it. And then they love to send me the positive reviews later from other festivals.”
In the Sundance 2020 the very first moment press pack, chief of programming Kim Yutani insinuated the dubious procedure of choosing a program, which this year winnowed from a record 15,000 entries. “We enjoyed the discussion of the merits of each film and how it would fit into the context of the festival as a whole,” she said. “We respond to works individually and that leads to passionate conversations.”
There are numerous instances of Sundance rejects from Cooper’s residency that proceeded to approval somewhere else. In 2013, Destin Daniel Cretton’s private treatment office dramatization “Momentary 12” was the toast of the SXSW Film Festival, where it won the great jury prize. “The conversation was, ‘Why wasn’t that at Sundance? They really screwed up,’” Cooper said. “What’s frustrating is that we’re judging rough cuts. I remember watching that rough cut and just being like, ‘Is this going to happen?’” However, the Sundance reject that still hits him hardest is “George Washington,” David Gordon Green’s expressionistic 2000 debut that premiered in Berlin. “When I finally saw it, it was a totally different film than what we saw, but we still got pegged for not showing it.”
He was miffed by the presumption that Sundance’s common narrative movie producers addressed a clubby mindset in the programming procedure. “Talk to the people we’ve rejected from the doc world over the years,” he said. “We’ve rejected Liz Garbus. We’ve rejected Rory Kennedy. We’ve rejected Morgan Spurlock. They always go, ‘Yeah, I knew that wasn’t going to be at Sundance.’ Because Sundance has that level of integrity of quality, freshness, and originality. And we really want to keep new voices coming in.”
At that point there are the films that Cooper selected, just to confront a whirlwind of backfire. In 2007, while filling in as chief of programming, Cooper fought with the infamous reaction to “Hounddog,” the southern-seared Dakota Fanning film in which her underage character is assaulted on camera. “See, I liked that movie,” Cooper said. “I’m always caught off guard by any provincial thought or conservative point of view, because I don’t see it like that. This is Sundance. We can do anything. What was the big uproar? Underage sex. To me, that was the interesting thing about it, because I’m a person who believes that if it happens in the world for real, there’s a place for it in a certain type of film.”
Sundance’s emphasis on assorted variety has stood out as truly newsworthy of late — 53% of movie producers in the U.S. Emotional Competition are ethnic minorities, and 40% are ladies — however Cooper underlined that its emphasis on portrayal goes past that. “I think what you really have to look at is the true diversity of your programming staff,” he said. “It’s not just gender and race, or sexual preference. It’s also how we argue about the types of films that we’re showing. I mean, I’m the one who shows most of what you would think is a conventional female movie. I respond to them. And there’s other people that don’t.” While he claimed his program team didn’t select films with diversity in mind, the process included some doubling back. “In the end, we will look at it and say, ‘Did we miss anything?’” he said. “And everybody has their notes, and we go back and sometimes we’ll re-watch things. It’s part of that process of what we do.”
Following quite a while of discussion about Sundance’s expanding market, Cooper despite everything opposed that any programming choices included a motion picture’s business prospects, and wailed over the effect of large deals on the optics of the celebration. “It was changing perceptions of who we were,” he said. “That we were getting too commercial, or we were fading, our important was going away. People said there wasn’t as much discovery, or that the discovery we were making was people who were already there, or that we were losing our edge. That just freaked me out. We’re also rejecting a lot of big people. You can’t let outside influences in. You have to trust your instincts.”
In any case, he grasped the chance to direct hungry purchasers through the lineup. That year that “Hounddog” debuted, Cooper modified the lo-fi sentimental melodic “Once,” which Fox Searchlight inevitably got to incredible achievement. In any case, that just happened late in the celebration after verbal exchange had the opportunity to fabricate.“I told every buyer to see ‘Once,’ and when I went to that first screening, there was nobody there,” Cooper said. “They thought I was just bullshitting, because they don’t really trust me.”
Cooper recognized the estimation of industry nearness at Sundance without grasping it himself. “I don’t think Sundance needs it,” he said, “but I think the filmmakers do. I like when filmmakers make their money back. I like when they look like they’ve been a success here.”
He singled out organizations like A24 and Neon “that just keep coming to take odd films and make them successes,” and looked back on the ’90s era of the festival, a pre-streaming climate filled with a very different set of independent distributors. “When I started, they were all like that,” Cooper said. “Bingham Ray at October Films. Gramercy, Miramax, New Line, Fine Line. There were all these eccentric people working at these companies, and this is what they were trying to do. And what happened with all of those, if you looked at their trajectory, is they all got bought by big studios. This one went here, this one went there, this one went there, and they all got closed down. Boom, boom, boom.”
Cooper disregarded reports about declining film industry figures for motion pictures that propelled at the celebration. “I almost laugh now when they start talking about the theatrical numbers for independent films,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. They were never big. It’s harder and harder to get people into cinemas, because they’re going to see an ‘Avengers’ movie. I do, too. They’re not going to see a small movie that might be upsetting to them.”
Accordingly, he saw potential in the ascent of the streamers. “On platforms, I know these films get watched, because when I talk to our donor population, a lot of them see eccentric stuff they didn’t used to see because it used to come a theater and then it would be gone,” he said. “That’s why documentaries are so hot right now, because people will watch documentaries constantly on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu. That’s where the numbers are. If we actually started counting those numbers, I’d think that independent film is killing more now than it ever did.”
Strikingly, Sundance’s 2020 market underscored that certainty. Its greatest deal in history occurred with Neon and Hulu mutually obtained the Andy Samberg parody “Palm Springs,” a fun loving “Groundhog Dog” riff that utilized the reason to investigate the idea of monogamy. The organizations reported the figure for the arrangement as $17.5 million — and attached an extra 69 pennies in a nervy exertion to make it a record-setter, in front of Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million arrangement for “Birth of a Nation” in 2016. Cooper wasn’t so certain “Palm Springs” was a conspicuous hit. “Is that a business motion picture?” he inquired. “It’s quite particular.”
The inquiry required its chief to say something. Talking by telephone a couple of days after the arrangement shut, “Palm Springs” executive Max Barbakow pondered on what it felt like to fill the required Sundance breakout form. “It feels silly and really odd,” he said. “Honestly, all I ever wanted to do was make movies and now there’s this opportunity to do it on a bigger canvas.” He recalled reading about all-night Sundance dealmaking in Peter Biskind’s “Down and Dirty Pictures,” and said, “It’s amazing to be a part of that.” But the theatrical component of his sale was key. “I think the collective experience of that story, seeing that together, really helps,” he said. “It might have more of an impact if you have to go find it before it’s available everywhere.”
“The voices of people who want to get in have gotten louder, which only tells me that Sundance is more important to them,” he said. “When they’re not being loud and dying to get into this festival, that’s a little scary, too.”