When Shari Frilot first joined the programming staff at the Sundance Film Festival, she felt she had to fit in.
The guy who hired her, John Cooper, urged her to stand out.
“There was no one like me, in every sense of the word,” said Frilot, a queer woman of color. “The first thing [Cooper] told me is, ‘You’re really different. We need you to be different. We need you to stay different.’”
Cooper, who worked up the ranks of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute from volunteer to directing the Sundance Film Festival for the last decade, announced last summer that the 2020 festival — starting Thursday night in Park City — will be his last as festival director.
As he’s moving into the newly created job of “emeritus director,” Cooper is resisting the siren call of nostalgia. “It’s actually been fun to think more of the future, instead of saying ‘This is the end of me,’” he said when the slate of this year’s films was announced.
His next projects will involve Sundance’s international reach (it has satellite festivals in London and Hong Kong) and preparing for the Sundance Institute’s 40th anniversary in 2021.
People who Cooper has worked with at Sundance, and filmmakers who have brought films to Sundance since he took the reins for the 2010 festival, praise his work and legacy.
“His tenure is probably as much of a milestone for a lot of the filmmakers who interacted with him during that time, as it may be for him,” said filmmaker Braden King, whose film “The Evening Hour” will premiere in the festival’s U.S. Dramatic competition, Monday, Jan. 27, at the Park City Library.
“He’s so grounded and human,” King said, “that it’s easy to almost overlook the impact he’s had not only on the festival but American independent cinema in his time at Sundance, and probably the history of cinema in general.”
Director Rodrigo Garcia — who calls himself “a dinosaur in the independent film world” since his first movie, the ensemble drama “Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her,” premiered at Sundance in 2000 — admires Cooper’s even-handed temperament.
“He’s very open-minded,” said Garcia, whose drama “Four Good Days,” starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis as a mother and daughter dealing with the daughter’s opioid addiction, premieres Saturday, Jan. 25. “His taste is very catholic. He is able to appreciate movies of very different ilks and backgrounds. His is a very broad appetite.”
Garcia recalled that a decade or so ago, “it was the height of [people saying] ‘Sundance is not what it used to be.’ Even if it was true, which I never thought so, those are always cycles.”
Director Steve James, whose career as a documentarian skyrocketed after “Hoop Dreams” premiered at Sundance in 1994, said that “before Cooper took over, Sundance had been trending toward being more celebrity-driven in its focus. … When Cooper took over, there seemed to be a regrounding of it, to some degree.”
One area Cooper has stressed is the documentary slate, including the creation of the Documentary Premieres program in 2011. That section showcases documentaries by veteran filmmakers, “to allow the [documentary] competition to be what it always was, this really exciting platform for discovery,” said Trevor Groth, who worked alongside Cooper for decades, including from 2010 to 2018 as the festival’s programming director.
Another innovation during Cooper’s tenure was the Next program, which began, Groth said, as a space for films that were “taking this new technology of digital cameras and editing technology, and these stories that were unconventional, cutting edge and groundbreaking.” Next has grown, Groth said, into “one of the hot sections of the festival. People always come to look for cool films there.”
Frilot credited Cooper for encouraging her to move the New Frontier program, which she curates, from a showcase for video installation works to a pioneering space for virtual reality, artificial intelligence and new technology.
“He knows when to pull the trigger on something that’s risky,” Frilot said.
James’ docuseries “City So Real” is debuting in Sundance’s Indie Episodic program, another recent addition that spotlights independent TV and web programming. He credits Cooper for pushing the Spotlight sidebar, for “showing some films that weren’t, God forbid, premieres at Sundance. That just sends the right message, because there’s too much focus in the festival world — particularly in the premiere festivals — in having the premiere.”
Much of Cooper’s influence is behind the scenes. Take the selection process for festival films, in which programmers each year comb through thousands of submissions to pick the 120 or so feature films, 70 or 80 short films, and a handful of TV programs and VR works that will be shown at Sundance.
“In November, when there are still hundreds of films to watch, and we have a week to lock the program, and it’s really stressful, he managed to make it fun and lifted people up every step of the way,” said Groth, who now works with the film financing company 30 West.
Frilot commended Cooper’s ability “to allow conflict and difference within our team, and to be able to let that come through in the program.”
Sundance’s slate of films is half the size as the film festivals in Toronto or Cannes, Frilot said, “but is so dynamic and diverse. Diversity has always been our ace in the pocket. ... [That] has a lot to do with how he trusts our staff, how he encourages us to be ourselves and different from each other, and passionate.”
Sundance is a festival, and Cooper — who used to open some screenings by doing a cartwheel onstage — has always kept that in mind.
“He wanted it to be a celebration,” Groth said. “He understands there’s a business component to it, and a lot of stress for filmmakers to sell their films at the festival or launch their films into distribution. He always wanted to alleviate that stress, and always bring the filmmakers back to what it was really all about, which is celebrating the film and the work that they did.”
King brought his debut film “Here” to Sundance in 2011. Besides dealing with distributors and deal-making, he said, there’s “the emotional roller coaster of sharing your film with an audience for the first time.”
Sundance, King said, “is probably one of the warmest, most familial places you can hope to go through that experience in.”
That sensibility comes from the top down, he said. “John’s probably the last one to talk about it, but I know it’s something he thinks about very deeply, and that everyone involved in the organization does,” King said.
Cooper, Groth said, “could see a filmmaker being stressed out in a corner, and he would go over to that filmmaker and give them a hug or tell them a joke, and really made them focus in on what it was all about.”
Cooper also launched a Sundance tradition that few outsiders know about: a pancake breakfast, cooked and served by the programming staff to the filmmakers on the festival’s second weekend.
Sundance is expected to announce a new director sometime after this year’s festival ends on Feb. 2. Cooper will be tough to replace, Frilot said. “He really cultivated a culture of being human and flawed and brilliant and special.”
2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
The annual celebration of American independent film once again brings Hollywood to Utah.
Where • Park City, and venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.
When • Thursday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Feb. 2.
Tickets • Available online at sundance.org.
Information • Go to sundance.org, or download the Sundance Film Festival app.