Skip to main content

Sundance Revamped: An Interview with Trevor Groth

By Laura Almo


The 26th edition of the Sundance Film Festival gets underway January 21, and with new leadership it promises to be different from years past. This year marks the debut for John Cooper as the director of the Sundance Film Festival and Trevor Groth, longtime programmer at Sundance, in his new position as director of programming.

Cooper, Groth and institute staff have spent much of the past year revamping the festival, implementing new sections, including NEXT, for low budget films; Spotlight, a retooling of the Spectrum section; and Sundance USA, a venture that takes the festival nationwide.

This year's festival is guaranteed to address concerns of an indie film world in transition as old distribution models fade away and new ones crop up.

On the eve of the festival, Groth spoke with Documentary about the changes at this year's edition of Sundance, new forms of distribution and the shifting festival landscape.

Main Street, Park City, Sundance '09. Photo: Fred Hayes. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Documentary: Talk about the vision of the Sundance Film Festival under the new leadership.

Trevor Groth: In a certain regard there is a new Sundance right now with Cooper as the director and me as the director of programming. However, that being said, we've both been with the festival for decades, so we feel like we're part of the festival's history, and now in our new roles we're excited about carving out a new path for its future.

We have very strong foundation. The festival is very secure in its place in the independent film world, and because of that strength we have the luxury of trying some new things and taking some chances.

D: Talk about some of the new things you're doing this year.

TG: One of the things that we're doing is Sundance Film Festival USA. It's probably our riskiest venture, but it's one of the things that we're most excited about. We are taking eight films that are at the festival; they're going to play up in Park City in January and then on the second Thursday of the festival [January 28], we're going to take them to eight different cities across the United States. We're going to create the festival experience in a theater in each of these cities.

We've always loved being in Park City and engaging in conversation around these films; it's magical! And now to take that energy to various cities that embrace that spirit is very exciting for us.

D: It's been said that this year Sundance is returning to its roots and becoming a smaller festival. Can you explain this?

TG: We implemented a new section of the festival that we're calling NEXT, which is a low-budget section. When I first started working for Sundance in 1992, pretty much every film that was in the festival was a low-budget film. Over the years we would still include some of these films, but they would not get the recognition that they deserved because of the more high-profile films that were in the festival. We wanted to give a proper spotlight to those films, so we created this [NEXT] section. The idea is, if you grouped these films together, they will garner more attention. It also makes us commit to showing these kinds of films instead of having them squeezed out.

I think in that sense there is an embracing of the kinds of film and filmmaking that really put Sundance on the map, and is what the real spirit of the festival is all about.

D: Can you talk about the new Spotlight section-- formerly the Spectrum section?

TG: We recognized that our Spectrum section had become a bit of a catch-all, so we carved out some of the Spectrum and created NEXT, and with the remaining slots we changed the name to Spotlight.

We wanted to use that section to be more of a spotlight--specifically to bring awareness to these films. Our documentary spotlight within the Spotlight section features brand new films that for various reasons stand on their own outside of competition. They have an inherent entertainment and informational value.

For example, 8: The Mormon Proposition by Reed Cowan, about the Mormon-backed Proposition 8 [in California] is in there. This is going to be one of the more heated screenings at the festival. Being in Utah, there's a lot of intrigue around that--and the film is really an indictment of the Mormon Church's support of Proposition 8. We've already received a ton of e-mails and calls about our choice to show this film, so it's definitely going to be a pretty heated screening.

From Reid Cowan's 8: The Mormon Proposition. Courtresy of Sundance Film Festival

D: How do you see the festival landscape changing?

TG: I do believe that film festivals are going to continue to play a vital role for theatrical distribution. Alternative forms of distribution are cropping up, whether it's VOD [Video On Demand], streaming or downloading. I think more filmmakers are recognizing that, so they're looking at launching their films from a festival into distribution in non-traditional ways.

I'm noticing that the filmmakers are coming into the festival with different expectations; last year, even though the technology was out there to do these different types of distribution, everyone pretty much came to the festival with the notion of, ‘I hope I get distribution at the festival.' This year, about half the people are still holding onto that Sundance dream--and it will happen for a few--but the other half are coming in not thinking that that's even an opportunity, and I think that's a healthy transition.

D: Does a festival have an implicit responsibility as both a launching pad and an enabler? To this end, are there going to be panels about other means of distribution at the festival?

TG: New forms of distribution is something that everyone is talking about. It's going to be the talk of the festival--after the films! Hopefully people will be talking about the films first and then alternative and creative distribution.

There are going to be panels specifically about distribution. Peter Broderick, Steven Beer and a number of other people are going to be there to pass on the information about all of the different opportunities that are happening right now. I think it's an incredibly positive time, and I'm excited to see the type of innovative distribution that comes through this crop of films at the 2010 festival.

D: How can Sundance--and festivals in general--go beyond the role as a discovery medium and help films really get out in the world?

TG: It's interesting, now that [former Sundance Director] Geoff Gilmore is at Tribeca--I know Tribeca is actively looking at becoming a festival and a distributor to go hand in hand.

I don't know if that's going to be our role at Sundance. We do have the Sundance Channel, and we're working with them on ways of distributing films from the festival through their various channels, including VOD and the cable channel.

I think for Sundance, it's not about us doing it; rather, it's about working with all of the people who are being inventive and creative with how they're doing distribution. I think if we work in partnership, it strengthens everyone.

D: What are the challenges of maintaining the edge as one of the leading festivals?

TG: It's something we ask ourselves all the time, and for us it keeps coming back to the films. For us, having our fingers on the pulse of the filmmaking communities out there and being able to bring the kinds of films to the festival that we think represent the people that are taking chances and that are telling stories in new ways and trying new things--that's how we can keep our edge. As long as we keep doing that within our programming, Sundance will remain vital.

Laura Almo is a contributing editor with Documentary.