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Chris Hicks: Sundance Film Festival's roots go back more than 30 years

As the subject shifted to movie violence, Robert Redford argued that modern depictions weren’t any more pervasive than in the earliest days of cinema, “but since we’ve moved into areas with our technical brilliance that allow it … a lot of filmmakers tend to show off.”

No, this isn’t a quote from the panel in which Redford participated Thursday as part of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Although, considering the amount of “showy” graphic violence in 21st-century movies, it could be.)

Those words were spoken by Redford as part of a panel for the Utah/US Film Festival in 1978 — the debut of a celebration of film that would evolve into the Park City-based event we know today.

That initial festival came rushing back to me as I stumbled across an old Deseret News story from Sept. 9, 1978, back when I covered the panel discussion as just another routine assignment for a city desk reporter. (It would be another year before I left the city desk to become the newspaper’s movie critic.)

The first Utah/US Film Festival, which ran Sept. 6-12, 1978, took place in Salt Lake City and primarily screened older movies in three categories — “The City,” “The West” and “The South.”

But it also marked the debut of the independent-film competition — seeking out regional filmmakers from around the United States to bring attention to low-budget movies that might otherwise go unacknowledged. And that, of course, remains the festival’s mission today.

Back in that first year, there were just six narrative features in the competition, gleaned from a mere 25 entries. (This year, out of some 9,000 submissions, there are 16 films each in the U.S. narrative and documentary competitions, and 12 each in the international narrative and documentary competitions, as well as premieres, sidebar programs and shorts.)

The Sundance Institute was still just a germ of an idea in 1978, and Redford agreed to act as chairman of the festival board, as well as participate on the aforementioned panel.

With him that evening were Pulitzer Prize-winning Native American author N. Scott Momaday and Diane Johnson, novelist, essayist and screenwriter, perhaps best known now for co-writing with Stanley Kubrick the screenplay for his 1980 film “The Shining.”

And although the 90-minute discussion traversed myriad aspects of film, the actual subject of the panel was Westerns. (If you don’t know what a Western is, ask your grandpa.)

There were a lot of Westerns among the programmed movies that year, including, arguably, one of the competition films, a modern-day examination of redneck personalities among residents of a dusty small town in Texas, titled “The Whole Shootin’ Match.”

Ultimately, the top award went to Claudia Weill’s “Girlfriends,” which was more slick in its production values and more urban in its story of a young New York City photographer who feels abandoned when her best friend and roommate moves out to get married.

But a special second-place award was created by the jury for Eagle Pennell’s “The Whole Shootin’ Match,” an ultra-low-budget movie shot on weekends by non-professionals, including the actors, who nonetheless give authentic performances in the story of two pals whose get-rich-quick schemes have a habit of falling apart. (It’s available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.)

Some years later, Redford was quoted as saying that it was the impressive quality of this shoestring production that led to his forming the Sundance Institute.

In the fall of 1979, the second Utah/US Film Festival was mounted in Salt Lake City. Then the third, with its title changed to the United States Film and Video Festival, was moved to Park City and had its time frame shifted from fall to winter, specifically Jan. 12-18, 1981.

That was also the year that Redford established the Sundance Institute, and four years later, his organization took over management of the film festival.

That 1985 festival dropped the “video” part of its title to become simply the United States Film Festival, adding “The Sundance Institute Presents.” And that’s how it remained for the next few years.

In 1990, it officially became the Sundance United States Film Festival, and a year later, it dropped the “United States” part of the title.

Since 1991, it has been known officially as the Sundance Film Festival, which, of course, is how we know it today.

So, yes, it’s the 30th year of Sundance running the event, but as a seminal forum for independent regional filmmaking with Robert Redford as its highest-profile contributor, the festival actually goes back some 37 years.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent's Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.