Executive Director of the Sundance Institute, Ken Brecher is a passionate advocate for Sundance’s central mission of supporting new artists. His background is diverse, having served as the President of the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia, the Director of the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Associate Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum Theater in Los Angeles. Brecher was trained as an anthropologist, and he brings to Sundance a keen fascination with the ways that we reveal ourselves and our cultures through the ever evolving medium of cinema. Scott Macaulay spoke with Brecher about Sundance the institution, its programs, and the future of its audience.
So, Sundance is 25. What does that mean to you?I feel so proud to be part of it, and I feel our best 25 years will be the next 25. I think we’ve been responsible to artists, which is our single goal — to deliver to them in every way. We are still progressive, political, interested in new voices, and more than ever committed to stories that we haven’t seen before on film. “To embrace the new” — that comes directly from Robert Redford. That’s his mantra. One of our board members said at our last meeting that the real issue for any organization is to understand the truth of that organization, and we certainly understand what our truths are. We’re about discovery, new work, supporting artists and encouraging people to experience independent film. I would say one of my strongest feelings on our 25th anniversary is that we have a responsibility to be as vibrant and recognizable with each one of our programs. Understandably, what people read about most is the festival, and of course there is a skewed view of it because of the celebrity aspect of it, but that’s a tiny part of what we do. How many people, for example, know that we’re collecting the history of independent film at UCLA?
Why do you feel so strongly that independent film can provide this sort of historical record? Is it because the mainstream media has become so consolidated that critical voices are disappearing? I am fascinated by the ways in which film will actually help people to hang on to history, and, yes, I’ve been thinking about this because I read the article in the The New York Times, the other day, which said that there had been almost no photographs published in any newspaper in America of American soldiers who had been killed [in the Iraq war]. Fortunately there are filmmakers who are recording what’s going on in the most difficult and problematic parts of the world, and their films, documentary and narrative will become our history of this time.
How do programs initiate and grow at Sundance? How did you become more than a feature film institute with programs like your theatre program, for example? Well, the theatre program in fact came before the film program, and that’s again very much about Robert Redford. He began as a theatre artist and still sees himself as a man of the theatre because that’s where his training came from. The Theatre program is itself very successful, and very highly regarded within the American theatre community. Many of the plays that have been through the development process of the program have been and are being produced in theatres across the country. Some of the recent projects include Grey Gardens by Doug Wright, Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. The Light In The Piazza by Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel. Upcoming projects include Tanya Barfield’s Blue Door and Stew’s Passing Strange. Philip Himberg, the director of the Program has done an amazing job of identifying new artists and also in providing support for experienced playwrights who need opportunities to develop and workshop their work.
The Sundance Documentary Fund, which supports work in America and internationally came through the Open Society Institute. The fund is very important because it allows us to provide startup funds, finishing funds, and outreach monies for work dealing with human rights, civil rights and freedom of expression. Cara Mertes is the director of the documentary program which oversees the Fund. She was the executive producer of POV at PBS, and is a passionate leader in the documentary field. My favorite moment is when the collaboration amongst our staff produces a new idea. For example, it became very clear that the music in documentary films was often not at the level of the cinematography or the storytelling. Most documentary filmmakers, even the great ones, work years to raise grants and when it comes time to add the music, there’s no money left and few resources. So, what we decided to do was take our film music program which is run by the composer Peter Golub and integrates it with two separate programs — the Feature Film Program run by Michelle Satter, and the documentary program. We have created two film music laboratories which allow filmmakers with projects in the works to collaborate with composers, making the score a fundamental part of the film from the beginning.
Outside of the festival, Sundance’s programs seem very focused on direct, individual support. Have you played with the idea of becoming a more conventional grant organization and supporting a larger group of filmmakers? The new funders for our programs often ask why there are only eight projects in the Directors Lab, or twelve to fifteen in the Screenwriters Lab each year. My response is that we are committed to supporting emerging filmmakers for the long haul, and it is not just about a few weeks a year at one of our labs. We believe and have seen that these Sundance Alumni become leaders in their generation and frequently inspire their peers with the originality and reach of their storytelling. I like to imagine that a person thinking about filmmaking as a career who sees Half Nelson or A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, Me, You and Everyone We Know or the upcoming Four Sheets to the Wind find the conviction to tell the stories that need to be told and only they can tell. So it’s not about the number of people who are in our programs, it’s about people you can reach.
How has Sundance managed to weather the various funding crises that have hit non-profits in the last few years? The reason that we are financially stable is due to the working relationship between our board and the Institute’s managing director Jill Miller. We want the Sundance Institute to be around for a very long time and we believe there our mission to discover and develop independent artists is crucial in this day and age. Many people don’t realize that the Sundance Institute is a year-round nonprofit organization. We are fortunate to receive broad financial support from individuals, foundations and corporations to enable us to present the annual Film Festival and to provide creative and financial support to independent film and theatre artists through our programs.
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