Park City • Robert Redford had an idea for a big opening for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s opening night.
Noting that this is the 30th year Sundance has been running the festival, the actor-director told the audience Thursday night at Park City’s Eccles Theatre that he asked his team “ ‘How about we roll, a big cake out on the stage and I jump out of it?’ “
“That got shot down pretty fast,” Redford quipped wryly.
Instead, the festival audience gave Redford a surprise: A sustained standing ovation when Redford, without any introduction, took the Eccles podium.
The ovation was the Sundance audience’s show of appreciation for Redford’s performance in the one-man drama “All Is Lost” — a role for which Redford had been talked about for an Academy Award, but was snubbed when Oscar nominations were announced Thursday morning.
“I can’t tell you how much that warm welcome means to me,” Redford told the audience.
Redford then got a little nostalgic about the early years, when his nonprofit Sundance Institute took over operations of the U.S. Film Festival.
“I wasn’t sure whether it was going to last,” Redford said. “I said, ‘Three years from now, we might not be here.’ Now, 30 years later, here we are.”
Nearly two hours later, the audience gave loud applause to the first movie on the Eccles screen: “Whiplash,” an intense drama about a college drummer (Miles Teller) striving for greatness and butting heads with an abusive bandleader (J.K. Simmons).
Writer-director Damien Chazelle came to Sundance last year with a short film called “Whiplash,” starring Simmons in the same role, and festival director John Cooper called it “the fastest turnaround from short to feature” Sundance has ever seen.
“Without Sundance, this movie wouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Chazelle said, adding that exposure of the short drew interest in making a feature-length version of the story.
Earlier in the day, in a press conference to open the festival, Redford led off by talking about the Oscar omission — and clarified to industry naysayers what the festival is and isn’t.
“Would it have been wonderful to be nominated? Of course,” Redford told reporters at the Egyptian Theatre. “But I’m not disturbed by it or upset because it’s a business. I was so happy to be able to do this film because it was independent. So that’s what’s on my mind, the chance it gave me. I’m happy about it and I’ll stay happy with it. The rest is not my business, it’s someone else’s.”
Nominations for this year’s Academy Awards were announced just a few hours before the news conference; Redford, who starred in “All Is Lost,” was not on the list.
Redford also felt the need to address a recent article that suggested that Sundance wasn’t what it could be. The article criticized the festival for its lack of support in the areas of film distribution and other financial matters.
“That’s got nothing to do with who we are,” Redford charged, adding it always has been the mission of the film festival to help new artists hone their craft and provide an opportunity for them to share their work.
After that, he said, “it’s our hope [that they will get distribution] but it’s not our business.”
The annual festival, which brings a host of Hollywood actors, directors and producers — as well as musicians, athletes, media and even top chefs — to Utah, runs through Sunday, Jan. 26, in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City, Ogden and the Sundance resort. Five premieres were set on the Day One slate in Park City.
The lineup is filled with 117 feature films from 37 countries. Of those, 54 films come from first-time directors.
The competition and Next films boast big names, including Oscar winners Anne Hathaway, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mary Steenburgen, while the documentaries cover a range of topics from Alzheimer’s and obesity to gay marriage, dinosaurs and the Major League Baseball pitcher who threw a no-hitter while on LSD.
Redford was joined onstage by Kari Putnam, Sundance Institute executive director, and John Cooper, festival director. Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means was the moderator.
The 30-year anniversary was the focus of much of the discussion.
“I don’t think the mission of Sundance has changed; it exists to support the voices of artists, to get their stories told and seen,” said Putnam. Over course, it has also seen a “remarkable evolution,” starting with feature films, then adding documentaries, a theater program and now 18 labs that support up-and-coming artists.
“It’s grown up,” said Putnam, “but the mission has stayed the same.”
To mark the festival’s three decades, which did not always enjoy today’s financial success, Cooper and the rest of the Sundance staff created this year’s Free Fail program, a series of panels and events that take place Monday, Jan. 20.
It’s an entire day that looks at “how crucial failure is to the creative process,” said Cooper. “We tend to cover it up with words like ‘taking a risk.’ ”
Cooper even showcased one of his mistakes: passing on the movie “Bottle Rocket,” which launched the careers of director Wes Anderson and actor brothers Owen and Luke Wilson.
“It’s a great thing to introduce at our festival,” he said about the failure discussion. “We certainly have hit spots along the road where things looked grim and things didn’t work. But do you let it stop you or is it a step along the road for development?”
For Sundance, it clearly was the latter. In the past five years, the festival has generated $375 million in economic activity for Utah.
A “good ending” for the story, Putnam said.
Follow The Salt Lake Tribune’s Sundance coverage at sltrib.com/sundance, sltrib.com/Blogs/sundanceblog and on Twitter @sundancelive.
Find maps, theater venues, shuttle stops and much more on The Tribune’s Sundance Film Festival Travel Guide on Pinterest at www.pinterest.com/sltrib.