History of the Sundance Film Festival

Sundance film festival, one of the largest independent film festivals of the USA, takes place every year in January at Park City, Utah, Salt Lake City, and Sundance Resort. New work from American and international filmmakers is displayed here that include feature films, American and international documentaries, dramatic films, short films, and many other plays.

History of Sundance Film Festival

History of Sundance Film Festival

The first-ever Sundance Film Festival was held in Salt Lake City in August 1978 as Utah Film Festival. This event was held to attract the filmmakers of other states towards Utah. The head of Robert Redford’s company Wildwood, Sterling Van Wagenen, and John Earle of the Utah Film commission organized this first film festival. The purpose of this film festival was to display the films made in the US, highlight the potential of the US filmmakers and the role and importance of independent cinema, and increase the visibility of Utah for filmmaking.

The central motif of the film festival was to direct a contest for American independent films. Another focus of the festival was to present a series of backdated movies and panel discussions for filmmakers in Utah. The festival was beneficial for many filmmakers, including Hollywood and the ones who worked outside Hollywood.

US Film Festival

Sundance Institute was established in 1979, and it organized the Film festival every year. It was the second film festival in Utah and the first festival that made a profit. More than 60 films were displayed this year. Many new filmmakers joined the organization. The panel featured many well-known filmmakers of Hollywood.

The Film Festival looked forward to a third outing in 1980, but due to some reasons, it couldn’t make it in the same year and was pushed to organize in 1981.

Film Festival in the 1980s

The third film festival, held in 1981, was moved to Park City in Utah. Also, it changed dates from September to January as per orders of the executive director,Susan Barrell, along with the cooperation director of Hollywood, Sydney Pollack. In 1980, Susan suggested that the event in a Ski resort in midwinter would attract Hollywood and made it call US Film and Video Festival.

Park City was generous to the fourth event of the US Film and Video Festival. The snowfall was much lighter, preventing the people from problems that they had faced last year. The 1982 festival was a next-level event that attracted an even larger audience.

The events from 1983 and 1984 were proved critical for the festivals as the US Film Festival made its name globally and was firmly entered the national film map. Also, the US Film Festival had caught the minds of the press all over the world.

In 1985, the US Film Festival moved under the wing of the Sundance Institute. It was a memorable one due to a large number of famous filmmakers there.

In 1987, many festival staff members and film associates joined the company of Robert Redford to participate in the upcoming events. One of the company’s critical initiatives was to develop new vents so that everyone can approach them manually and make sure that there is a platform for independent films.

Sundance Film Festival in the 1990s

The festival was officially renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991 after Redford’s character ‘the Sundance Kid’ from the hit film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

No doubt, the Sundance film festival enjoyed its extraordinary growth in the 1990s. It was the time when the festival was under the leadership of Geoffrey Gilmore and John Cooper. They transformed the venue into the premier festival in the US. This crucial era of the festival is very well documented in Professor Emanuel Levy’s book, Cinema of Outsiders: The Rise of American Independent Cinema. It is the most comprehensive chronicle of Sundance and the Indie movement over the past four decades.

In the 1990s, studios paid more attention to the films screened at Sundance. Quentin Tarantino premiered his 1992 film ‘Reservoir Dogsat’ in the festival and earned more than $2 million at the box office. Since the mid-1990s, many independent US films have reached the mainstream audience through this festival. The institute also launched a cable TV channel, the Sundance Channel, in 1996 to air films, documentaries, and original series commercial-free.

Sundance Film Festival in the 2000s

The year 2000 was when the festival went digital as the organizers recognized the rise of digital filmmaking and launched its Online Film Festival. Sundance film festival projected 40 films with digital technology in 2001.

During this time, more and more films were being submitted every year. Moreover, each year gave rise to the recognition of digital filmmaking through the introduction of the Sundance Online Film Festival. Apart from projecting films from experienced filmmakers, documentaries and directorial debuts of different filmmakers were also presented.


The escalated recognition of this festival made it challenge the international cinema in 2005 while gaining better consumer media stats each year. Online showcase of movies and short films actually became something to be considered in 2006 when it crossed 1 million downloads. Netflix came up with the streaming service the next year, giving more recognition to this platform. Around 35 countries presented movies in 2008 and made this festival more popular worldwide.

Various World Cinema Jury Awards were also rewarded for the first time this year. 2009 marked the 25th year of this festival and showcased a total of 218 movies. End of this decade ended up with about 10,000 film submissions, out of which 191 were screened. New visions and more originality were being added each year, giving rise to its fame. Consumer media stats of 2010 left everyone stunned with its remarkable numbers and clientele percentage.

Sundance Film Festival in the 2010s

Sundance Film Festival in the 2010s

This festival played a great role in introducing first-time filmmakers and giving them a break in the industry. In 2011, around 25 such filmmakers were introduced with their documentaries and dramatic creations. The year 2012 introduced more influential creations and documentaries. This year also came with a handful of remarkable off-screen highlights along with the mobile version of the VR headset.

New Mesmerizing additions in technology made this festival even more aspiring each year. In the next year, 2013, a new history was made when the same films were selected by the juries and the audiences for the awards. This period can also be said as the rise of women as most films were written and directed by them. 2014 completed three decades of the Sundance film festival, and the organizers are planning to make it bigger and better.


Evolving and becoming more and more admirable each year, this festival started bringing environmental problems and impacts along with the virtual reality experiences more common in public. Leveling up in 2018, the audience attendance jumped from 71,600 to 124,900 in just a year. This decade ended with 20,000 movie submissions in 2020. Various notable personalities also joined this festival from time to time, which gave it more recognition.

Sundance Film Festival – Evolving with Time

Sundance Film Festival is considered one of the biggest film festivals till today. Interestingly, the Sundance film festival 2021 will start on 28 January and end on 3 February, so get ready for the biggest festival. Get your hands on the ticket and join the ride for the best films.