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John Cooper named Sundance Film Festival director

'We have to change with the industry,' the veteran festival programmer says. 'But we don't know what that means.'

March 11, 2009|John Horn

Working quickly to promote from within, the Sundance Institute on Tuesday named veteran festival programmer John Cooper the new director of the Sundance Film Festival. The announcement came just three weeks after Geoffrey Gilmore left the post to become chief creative officer for Robert De Niro's media company, Tribeca Enterprises.

Cooper, who has worked in various capacities at Sundance for the last 20 festivals, became its lead film programmer in 2002. He will now preside over all aspects of the nation's leading festival for independently financed movies, including its move into online exhibition, strategic planning and worldwide partnerships.

"There's no question you will start to see some difference by 2010," Ken Brecher, executive director of the Sundance Institute, said of Cooper's influence on next January's festival in Park City, Utah. "We're really giving him an opportunity to put in a new structure. Everything is on the table."

In addition to running the festival's programming staff for the last seven years, Cooper was instrumental in launching several Sundance festival initiatives.

He advocated and helped curate New Frontier, a festival showcase of more experimental works that included narrative features, performance art and panel discussions on technology and creativity. As Sundance's director of creative development, Cooper also organized an annual gathering of art house theater owners to promote the exhibition of specialty films outside major cities.

Cooper said he did not know if he would name a new lead programmer for the festival, which was founded by Robert Redford and just celebrated its 25th anniversary with its highest attendance ever.

"That's my first order of business," Cooper said of the programmer decision.

He said he wanted Sundance to review every aspect of its festival, including how it works with filmmakers, the media and film buyers. "We are in the middle of a rocky, crazy time," he said, referring to the economy and recent upheavals in independent film financing and distribution. "We have to be responsive. We have to change with the industry. But we don't know what that means."

Cooper did indicate, however, that he might reaffirm the festival's commitment to truly independent cinema. Critics have accused the festival of moving away from its scrappy roots as a venue for cutting-edge filmmaking; this year's Sundance lineup included well-financed productions starring such mainstream stars as Jim Carrey and Richard Gere.

"We're not just trying to get people into the commercial realm, but also into art," he said. "Our success cannot be defined by films getting picked up and sold. You're not going to make everybody happy, but we have to stay close to our mission."

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john.horn@latimes.com

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