A few minutes with Sundance Fest’s John Cooper

Realscreen sits down with Sundance fest programmer John Cooper to get his mandate, his tips for submissions and trends - plus lots more.
August 21, 2008

Sundance Film Festival
Programmer name and title:
John Cooper, director of programming, Sundance Film Festival and creative director, Sundance Institute
Dates and location of next installment of fest: January 15 to 25, 2009 in Park City, Utah
Eligibility requirements: download
Submission dates: September 8, 2008 ($75 fee); late submission deadline: September 22, 2008 ($100 fee). Filmmakers with questions can email

What do you consider to be your mandate?
First and foremost, I ask ‘Is it good filmmaking?’ I can go a little more to the theatrical and entertainment-based documentaries. We will have arguments here about Super Size Me and Michael Moore: what part is it serious docmaking and what part is it theatrics? I always think, ‘What purpose does the moving image have in the telling of this story or issue?’ I do like emotion in a film. I program very much from the gut: did the film move me? I don’t go very academic.

How can filmmakers make their submission stand out?
If you send me a rough cut, attach a document that explains what you’re still working on. There’s nothing worse than watching a movie and going ‘I wonder if they know this is horrible music?’ and then they can say ‘I know it’s horrible, but I’m working with a composer’ or ‘I know the last 20 minutes have to be cut down to five.’ It helps you gauge their dedication to excellence.

Standout films from most recent fest:
Trouble the Water – they made it theatrical. They found this footage and made it into a story and took it one step further by weaving together elements. And American Teen. The editor for a documentary is not to be underrated in any way. That director shot every day for something like 11 months and constructed a story out of that. She kept it from becoming as boring and mundane as high school itself.

Any trends you’ve spotted?
There’ve been a lot of filmmakers putting themselves in the films and I don’t mind that style as long as it works. We showed Josh Tickell’s film, Fields of Fuel, and he’s in the movie a lot but it’s really his story. If the person puts themselves in the film, I ask ‘Do they really earn their screen time?’

Celebrity culture is at an all-time high. How has the rise of the celebrity affected your festival?
This new wave of celebrities involved in documentaries has been good. I hate that immediate disgust [people have when celebrities make them]; I’m not a purist at all. For me, everyone should have a fair shot at making a movie and if they have something to say, I’ll listen. A lot of celebrities aren’t afraid to ask for help and push out favors to make their film, whereas filmmakers that are young are shy about that.

What’s the impact of online film fests and distribution on your fest? Are they friend or foe?
We’ve been playing in that realm for a couple years with short films and using them as a testing ground. I think all these new platforms are vital to independent film. Hollywood can hold on to old systems like the blockbuster hit, the big summer movie, because they can afford it and it serves them, but indie film has to get really creative and try everything. Online is going to be useful for promotion. But I think film festivals [like ours] will become more important because of the theatrical experience, and also we’re a filter – we watch 800 documentaries and choose to show 16 – we do the work for you.

What’s your personal gauge of a successful festival?
I don’t watch movies at our fest, so I do a lot of standing outside doors at theaters and listening to people talk about them when they come out. Sometimes I ride the shuttle and quietly listen to people talk about movies. I’m doing my own personal research. I pick up strangers in the car when it’s snowing and don’t tell them who I am and say ‘Did you see anything you like?’

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