John Cooper, who led the efforts to move the Sundance Film Festival into the digital age, will be leaving his job as director after the 2020 festival.
The Robert Redford-founded Sundance Institute announced Thursday that Cooper will move into a new role of emeritus director after next year’s festival, which runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 2 in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort.
“This journey has been exhilarating,” Cooper, 63, said in a statement released by the institute. “I’ve been lucky to find my perfect job.” He credited the staff he has worked with over the years, “who strive together to help storytellers follow their dreams and launch careers.”
In the new job, Cooper will be handling special projects and overseeing the institute’s 40th anniversary in 2021. The institute’s executive director, Keri Putnam, will be leading a search for a new festival director.
Cooper worked his way through the ranks of Sundance. His first job was as a volunteer with the institute’s summer labs at the Sundance resort, arranging housing for filmmakers, crew and advisers. He then became lab manager during the summer, and print manager during the January festival, making sure film prints got to the right theaters.
In 1990, the programming department handed Cooper a box of short films and told him to make a program out of it. The result was Sundance’s first short-film program; now, the festival is famous for giving rookie directors, from Wes Anderson to Damien Chazelle, their first exposure through shorts.
Programming for a festival, Cooper told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2010, “is very intuitive, because it’s a mixture of academics and instinct. If you have too much training, it can get in your way.”
In 2003, festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, Cooper’s predecessor, named Cooper programming director for the festival. Cooper also worked on the institute’s online projects, and with Sundance programs in Brooklyn and Tokyo.
Cooper’s flair as a showman — before coming to Sundance, he was part of an award-winning Manhattan cabaret trio — was evident in an annual ritual he would perform at Sundance premieres: He would execute a cartwheel onstage. He stopped that tradition in 2007, when he turned 50.
When Gilmore left Sundance after the 2009 festival, Cooper ascended to the top job. The showman’s instinct persisted; one year, he organized a program about failure that gave festivalgoers a chance to do things outside their comfort zone. In one such instance, Cooper and others learned how to do a kick line from members of the Rockettes.
In his decade as festival director, Cooper oversaw changes in digital projection that mirrored those in the movie industry; at the 2018 festival, the only film that was actually projected on film was a 25th anniversary restoration of Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.”
Cooper introduced the Next program to highlight micro-budget digital filmmaking, and the extension of the New Frontier program into virtual reality and augmented reality programming. He added the Documentary Premieres section, to give a showcase for established documentary filmmakers.
Cooper also helmed two offshoot festivals, in London and Hong Kong, giving international audiences a first look at movies that debuted in Park City.
Within the industry, Cooper is credited for his work creating the Sundance Industry Office and the Ignite program, which helps filmmakers in their teens and 20s. He was also involved in the formation of the Arthouse Convergence, which brings together independent movie theaters.
Putnam said in a statement that “Cooper’s contributions are immeasurably large and he will be missed in this role. ... But then again, he will be right down the hall in this new capacity.”