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The Screening Room

Robert Redford: Indie cinema isn't dead yet

By Grace Wong for CNN
  • Redford says Internet will play key role in future of independent cinema
  • 26th annual Sundance Film Festival opens Thursday in Park City, Utah
  • There is always a breakout film at Sundance, Redford says
  • Movies from international filmmakers provide a form of "cultural exchange," he says

(CNN) -- The Internet will help independent cinema survive despite a dip in the industry, says Robert Redford.

The outlook for small-budget films looks the way it always has -- "kind of grim," Redford told CNN ahead of the start of Sundance, the indie film festival he started a just over a quarter of a century ago to champion filmmakers.

"There's always the bleak view for independent film but it does manage to survive," said the veteran actor and filmmaker. Redford said technology is changing the media equation and will help independent films reach wider audiences.

Sundance, now in its 26th year, grew out of Redford's own experience making indie movies like "The Candidate" and "Ordinary People" and a desire, he said, to tell riskier stories.

Video: Five movies to see at Sundance

Over the years, the festival which is held annually among the ski slopes of Park City, Utah, has helped launch films from "sex, lies, and videotape" to "Little Miss Sunshine" into the mainstream.

A veritable who's who of hip Hollywood directors have also launched their careers at Sundance: Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson.

There has always been and there always will be a breakout film. Noone can quite predict it.
--Robert Redford

Last year's breakout hit was "Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire," winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. It went on to score big at the box office, picked up an Golden Globe last week and has been tipped for Oscar success in March.

Speaking from his home in California's Napa Valley, Redford demurs from predicting what films will break out at this year's festival, which starts Thursday.

He does so out of fairness to the filmmakers and also because "I can get clobbered," he said, if something doesn't happen as forecast.

But he added: "There has always been and there always will be a breakout film. No one can quite predict it. I like the fact that Sundance is unpredictable."

Sundance's greatest hits
'Reservoir Dogs,' (Quentin Tarantino, 1992)
Without a doubt, this was the film that sparked Quentin Tarantino's career. It remains a cult classic in the crime noir genre.

'Donnie Darko,' (Richard Kelly, 2001)
Almost a decade after Richard Kelly's haunting debut about a troubld teen, it still epitomizes the dark side of 1980s suburbia.

'sex, lies, and videotape,' (Steven Soderberg, 1989)
Soderbergh's low-budget debut about a troubled married couple was Miramax's first Sundance buy. It grossed $25 million in the U.S.

'Clerks,' (Kevin Smith, 1994)
This film's cynical low brow humour captured the spirit of restless Gen X slackers. Miramax picked up the $27,000 flick that made $3 million in the U.S..

'The Blair Witch Project,' (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, 1999)
It was the unprecedented online viral marketing campaign implying the doc was real that hyped the horror often said to be as one of the most profitable films ever.

'In The Bedroom,' (Todd Field, 2001)
Field's perfectly pitched debut tale of domestic trouble in small town America went on to receive five Oscar nominations.

'The Usual Suspects,' (Bryan Singer, 1995)
Five guys on a heist and an elusive villain named Keyser Soze -- the simple ingredients combined to create one of the most fascinating crime thrillers in the history of cinema.

'American Splendor,' (Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini, 2003)
Critics and audiences alike loved the mix of fiction and reality in this biopic of grumpy Harvey Pekar and his comic book series, "American Splendor."


Over the years the festival has become a celebrity destination known for its party scene. Sundance became a place "where you get a swag bag," Redford conceded.

But he insists that the festival has never strayed from its independent beginnings.

The ongoing economic downturn has hit the movie business on all fronts, with specialty divisions, which cater to the indie market, taking a particularly heavy beating.

Art house subsidiaries of Hollywood studios such as Warner Brothers' Picturehouse and Warner Independent Pictures and Paramount Vantage have all closed in recent years. (Warner Brothers, like CNN, is owned by Time Warner.)

People say there's no future for independent film because it doesn't really work in the marketplace, Redford said.

"But the fact is that there's new distribution on the horizon, and that's the Internet."

Films are already being self-distributed online, and while it may be difficult now, it will become easier for filmmakers in the future, he said.

Backing for independent filmmakers comes and goes, said Redford. "There is no constant support for independent film. It's evanescent."

"Sundance has never gone Hollywood. Hollywood came to us, but it's never been about Hollywood. It will always be a festival for independent filmmakers," Redford said.

The festival's mission of promoting original storytelling has not changed, but it has grown and adapted to transformations in the world landscape.

As globalization broke down borders and boundaries in the 1990s, Sundance was able to reach out to the international community and bring their stories to the festival, according to Redford.

In doing so, Sundance is "using film as cultural exchange," he said. "In all these films, the narratives are very powerful. They tell you a lot about the culture."

The festival is committed to screening a diversity of films. At Sundance, "all the films are very different. You're going to have a choice," Redford said.

Films from Russia, Iran, Greenland, Estonia and Cambodia are among those featured in the world cinema feature and documentary categories this year.

While he is a vocal and influential advocate of the arts, Redford, 73, has not been distracted from his craft.

He recently finished editing "The Conspirator," about the trial that follows Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Redford, who turned to theater performance after starting out as an artist, said he can't imagine pursuing anything but a creative career.

"I can't help it. That's what I was meant to do. You follow your heart, your instincts, your intuition.

"Art is essential. I'm fine to be in that category whatever happens to be happening to it."

Agnes Teh contributed to this report.