The Sundance Film Festival changed Eugene Hernandez’s life 30 years ago. Now he’s in charge.

Going to his first festival was ‘transformational,’ starting a career in independent film, the new director says.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eugene Hernandez, the new director of the Sundance Film Festival, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024. The festival returns to Park City and Salt Lake City, Jan. 18-28, 2024.

For Eugene Hernandez, a champion of independent film, the 2024 Sundance Film Festival is a full-circle moment.

“It all started for me at Sundance,” said Hernandez, who first attended the festival — his first film festival of any kind — in 1993. This year, his 30th Sundance, will be his first as the festival’s director and head of public programming.

Attending Sundance in 1993 was “transformational,” Hernandez said, and the magic he discovered amid the mountains of Park City is “still very fresh in my brain.”

For his first year as director, Hernandez has overseen a team that has chosen some 90 feature films and dozens of shorts — from 17,345 submissions, the most ever in Sundance’s history, from 153 countries — that will be shown to the world Jan. 18-28, in Park City and Salt Lake City venues.

“You can choose 90 films, [but] you have to be intentional,” Hernandez said. “Everything is there for a reason with 17,000 submissions.” (He added that out of the 90 films chosen for the festival, he doesn’t have a favorite.)

Finding Sundance

Hernandez said he’s been a fan of film, in some capacity, his entire life — growing up with early Disney animated movies and the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

His first effort at curating and programming movies came in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, in the student film program at UCLA. He kept coming across movies — in screenings in Los Angeles, and mentioned in the Hollywood trades and the iconic alt-weekly The Village Voice — that struck him.

“The films that were that were resonating with me — whether that be the work of Todd Haynes’ “Poison” or Jennie Livingston with a film like “Paris is Burning” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” — [they all] arrived in front of me with this with this label of ‘Sundance Film Festival’ on them,” Hernandez said. “So, inevitably, I was, like, ‘Well, there’s something going on at this festival because the movies that are [from there] are clicking with me, are interesting to me, are outside the Hollywood system.”

So in January 1993, Hernandez came to Utah — unsuitably dressed for winter, he said, as a kid who grew up in Palm Springs. He planned to visit for 5 days, and ended up staying for a whole week.

(Eugene Hernandez) Eugene Hernandez at his first ever Sundance Film Festival in 1993. Hernandez is now the director of the festival.

Amid all the excitement of attending his first festival, one moment that sticks out in his memory, he said, was seeing director Robert Rodriguez’ debut film, “El Mariachi,” an action movie about a musician in a Mexican town who’s mistaken for an assassin.

The story of how Rodriguez got his movie made — he volunteered for clinical pharmaceutical trials to raise some of the $7,000 he spent on the movie’s initial budget — was as impressive to Hernandez as the movie.

“He had limited resources shooting in Mexico. He had a truck and a guitar and a farm, and had to write a story that would somehow use what he had,” Hernandez said. “Watching that film, for the very first time at the Prospector Theatre in 1993, was a formative experience.” (At the screening, Hernandez also met the Sundance Institute’s founder, actor-filmmaker Robert Redford.)

“Back then, the movies that were playing at Sundance, nobody had heard of these directors or the films or filmmakers,” Hernandez said. “It was the tradition of discovery, in the tradition of celebrating independent storytelling and independent voices.”

Hernandez said he saw in Rodriguez “someone who was coming from a background that felt similar to mine — being a grandchild of immigrants from Mexico, and realizing that Sundance was a place that would showcase and celebrate stories that come from my own background and heritage.”

Attending the 1993 festival, Hernandez said, was like having a light bulb go off. Since then, he said, that light bulb has gone off repeatedly: Seeing “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” in 2001, “Napoleon Dynamite” in 2004, and even last year, introducing director Lisa Cortés before a Salt Lake City screening of her documentary “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” about the legendary musician.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Moderator Eugene Hernandez leads a conversation with Joana Vincente, Kim Yutani, and John Nein, during the Sundance Scoop in Park City, on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

“I really clicked with this notion that is still very much a part of Sundance today — this emphasis on discovery,” Hernandez said.

Writing about film

Attending Sundance in 1993 became a catalyst for Hernandez, launching what’s now a decades-long career in the independent film world.

On a shuttle bus during that first festival — a day after he called his boss to say he was extending his trip because he was having a great time — Hernandez met film writer Mark Rabinowitz.

“We stayed in touch,” Hernandez said. “Then he, Cheri [Barner] and I started immediately talking about how we could find a way to continue to nurture and support that curiosity and exploration that we were only getting satisfied by going to Sundance every year.”

They all noticed, he said, that there was no daily coverage of the festival. In the summer of 1996, Hernandez, Rabinowitz, Barner, Roberto A Quezada and Mark L. Feinsod formed an online publication, IndieWire, dedicated to covering the independent film scene. IndieWire covered Sundance for the first time in 1997, printing “On the Scene” newspapers and distributing them in Park City.

Hernandez continued to make connections in the industry through Sundance. For example, at the 1996 festival, he met Dana Harris-Bridson — who’s now IndieWire’s editor-in-chief.

“We were among, like five people who showed up for the inaugural Slamdance press conference,” Harris-Bridson recalled.

They didn’t work together at IndieWire, but “I crossed paths with Eugene constantly,” Harris-Bridson said. “The thing that stuck out about him was that he had the guts to start an independent film publication at a time when people frankly didn’t think independent film was necessarily worth publication.”

Hernandez, she said, was the “first person to believe in the abilities of independent film to support an online publication.”

“That’s how [IndieWire] started, because he liked independent film and cared about it. There wasn’t a place to gather around, there wasn’t a place to read about it. So he, you know, invented it,” Harris-Bridson said.

Launching IndieWire, she said, also had the practical effect of letting Hernandez go to film festivals and meet the creators behind those independent films. “He wrote about them and gave them a platform, when other people didn’t,” she said.

Hernandez said, “Sundance was the lens through which I viewed and understood independent filmmaking as an idea, a concept, a reality. It is a festival that has been so influential in the boom of festivals that were created later — in the ‘90s and into the 2000s in particular.”

New York state of mind

Hernandez worked for IndieWire as editor-in-chief, until 2010, when he became the director of digital strategy for what’s now Film at Lincoln Center, the nonprofit that each fall operates the New York Film Festival — the other cultural event that ended up shaping him, he said.

Lesli Klainberg, a producer and director who is now Film at Lincoln Center’s president, said Hernandez is the person who introduced her to the organization. She would wind up hiring him to be her deputy director, and later director of the New York Film Festival.

Klainberg said she put Hernandez in that job because “Eugene has a particular perspective, as a person that kind of came of age with independent film. His career has largely been shaped by his relationships with those filmmakers and the people in the industry that have come up with him through IndieWire.”

During his time at Lincoln Center, Klainberg said, Hernandez had a big role working with artists and the center’s programs. “He has a really deep connection to people who are artists, who run the film studios, and the audience,” she said.

Hernandez, she said, wants to make film accessible to everyone, so it can have an impact on their lives. “What he brings are his personal values, which I think are really important in an industry where it may feel very cutthroat and not very personal,” she said.

The New York festival would run three movie theaters a day at Lincoln Center, Hernandez recalled. “I used to really, really enjoy standing outside the movie theater on a Friday night to see who was showing up,” he said. “The challenge is remaining committed to creating that in-person experience. It all starts from that in-person experience, and then it grows from there.”

While at Film at Lincoln Center, Hernandez often returned to Sundance to see what movies might emerge and eventually make it to the New York festival. In 2015, he served on the jury for the U.S. Documentary competition.

Back at Sundance

While he was working on the 2022 New York Film Festival, Sundance announced that Hernandez would become director of the Utah-based festival. Though he was quite visible at Park City and Salt Lake City venues last year, this year’s festival is the first where he’s been in charge.

His boss, Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, noted in a written response that Hernandez “has been at the forefront of the independent film community since he started coming to the Sundance Film Festival. … That industry knowledge and his commitment to supporting the careers of storytellers is apparent in his leadership today.”

Vicente added, “Having attended the Sundance Film Festival for decades, Eugene came into his role as director with a rich foundation of institutional knowledge that has been particularly helpful in curating a program that celebrates the 40th edition and reflects the festival’s legacy.”

“The time we’re in now is not so different,” Hernandez said, from “what drew me to Sundance at the very beginning. … Even though the internet didn’t exist then, even though the role of media was different, we’re in a moment where there’s such a creative excitement for emerging storytellers and filmmakers, right now across the world.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eugene Hernandez, the new director of the Sundance Film Festival, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

To meet that challenge as an arts nonprofit, he said, “means just maintaining a constant persistence, a commitment to a mission and goals and ultimately to artists.”

Sundance also thrives, he said, on the commitment from audiences. Hernandez said he encourages the Utah audiences to come to the venues in Park City and Salt Lake C/ity, and support the festival as they have for years.

A few times while in Salt Lake City, Hernandez said he’s heard people call Sundance “private or exclusive. … In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s open and available to Utahns.”

Hernandez stressed that “the leading festival of discovery in film each year is a local event for folks who live in Salt Lake and in Park City. The audience in Utah has come back year after year after year in Salt Lake and in Park City, and in the summer for the summer program.” (Hernandez also is directing Sundance’s year-round programming.)

Festival regulars have noticed that the prices for individual tickets have gone up this year, from $25 to $30 per screening, for both in-person and (during the festival’s final four days) online.

“In keeping with being a sustainable and a responsible festival and organization, we’ve tried to keep the prices as manageable and as low as possible,” he said. “It was something we were mindful of.”

Ticket prices, Hernandez said, “have been stagnant for a long time.” He also noted that the festival offers discounts, for the locals-only packages (which are sold out) and bulk tickets. Also, he said, “we remain committed to having screenings that are free for the community.”

In the days leading up to the 2024 festival, Hernandez’s excitement for independent film has been shining brightly.

He listed off some of the big-name stars who are coming to this year’s festival, such as Pedro Pascal, Kristen Stewart and Camila Cabello. He said he’s ecstatic that the festival will be screening “Presence” the new movie by director Steven Soderbergh — whose first film, “sex, lies and videotape,” put Sundance on the map in 1989 when it scored the first $1 million distribution deal in the festival’s history.

Hernandez talked enthusiastically about a recent Zoom call with filmmakers from around the world — that went on for two hours.

“That’s what Sundance has been doing for 40 years,” he said, adding that his hopes for the festival are to create “the opportunity for those moments.”

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