Every winter for over 30 years, Park City has rolled out the red carpet for an impressive menagerie of actors, directors, filmmakers, and film buffs during the Sundance Film Festival. And for the past 11 years as festival director (and 30 years total at Sundance), John Cooper has been tirelessly devoted to bringing independent film to the big screen. But after this year’s festival, he’ll step down from his current role. “I’m switching roles to emeritus director,” he says. “It’s a big job with a lot of small parts, so I’ll be around for a year to help make the transition for the new director as smooth as possible.”
Lucky for us, Cooper shared a few parting words for making your festival experience the best possible—whether you’re a veteran Sundancer or a newbie.
- For starters, there is no “right” way to do it. “Come in as open-minded as possible,” he says. “Try a lot of new things and take risks with the films you see.” The flicks are made by artists telling a personal story. Not all stories are pretty, but they should move you in some way—whether you laugh or cry. “Push your mental capacity and be a daring adventurer in your search for experiences,” he says.
- Look for unexpected films that excite you, not just the big films getting a lot of buzz. Plan to get out of your comfort zone and release any preconceived notions of what is good or bad. Mix it up. If you see 30 documentaries, you might be hungry for a comedy—so plan to see as many categories as possible. “When I go to a festival, I like to see big and small films, new and old,” he says. “It keeps thing intense and interesting.”
- Make sure you leave time for the New Frontier program—an innovative program that pushes the boundaries of storytelling. This curated collection of experimental media works is defying artistic boundaries with virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), mixed reality (MR), and artificial intelligence (AI). “New Frontier is the intersection of technology and art. These artists are pushing the limits of technology to tell stories in a completely fascinating new way,” he says. “They can take you places you’ve never been before and manipulate your environment with a headset.”
- You’ll also want to catch the World Cinema program, which showcases international films. This program has been building relationships in the global industry to get the best films from other regions. “Don’t be afraid of subtitles,” he says. “You might miss an unusual world view.”
- It’s easy to want to see every film and go to every event, but you might wear yourself out if you try to do it all. Think of it as an endurance race and pace yourself. “If it’s past midnight and you’re at a party and not having the best time of your life, go home and get some rest,” he says. Eat regularly. “My favorite snack is bacon,” he says. Take snacks and nibble while you’re waiting in line. Finally, take time to enjoy the natural environment. “I love a good snowstorm in the middle of the festival,” he smiles. “It forces everyone to slow down, get out of the fray, and maybe even look down on Main Street.”
- What to wear? Leave the ball gowns at home. Park City is a mountain town. It’s probably going to snow, the streets may be a mess, and it’s going to be very cold. Dress for the weather. “Being prepared is the fashion statement,” he says. “Take a bag with a water bottle and food. Wear the right shoes. Be comfortable.”
- Finally, enjoy the communal party vibe. Whether or not you get invited to a party, talk to people in lines, on the shuttles, or at the bars. “Everyone likes to talk about the films,” he says. “Strike up a conversation and see where it goes.”
Information on the 2020 Sundance Film Festival (Jan 23–Feb 2) can be found at sundance.org.