Former Sundance director honored at film festival

PORT TOWNSEND — Despite retiring after 10 years as executive director of the Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper can’t completely let go of being in charge by just sitting back and enjoying a showcase of new, independent and innovative cinema.

Cooper, who oversaw all aspects of one of the world’s most famous and influential film venues and markets from 2010-2020, was honored at the Port Townsend Film Festival on Friday for his contributions and dedication to cinema and independent filmmakers.

After special guests were greeted with red carpet treatment, arriving in vintage cars provided by the Rakers Car Club, at the foot of the Taylor Street stairs at Haller Fountain, Cooper was honored at the Rose Theater, where all is lost , a film starring Sundance founder Robert Redford, was screened.

The festival continues today and Sunday, showing nearly 60 films in five theaters.

Additionally, an outdoor nightly film is shown for free on Taylor Street, culminating in a Sunday screening of Napoleon Dynamite, a film created by the festival’s other two special guests, Jared and Jerusha Hess.

An awards ceremony for the husband and wife team is scheduled for 6.30pm today at the American Legion Hall on Water Street.

It wasn’t Cooper’s first time in Port Townsend – he visited his sister-in-law who has a home in the community – but it was his first time at the film festival.

He was supposed to attend last year, but the event was moved online due to the pandemic.

Determined not to sit out another year, Cooper told Executive Director Danielle McClelland and Programming Director Jane Julian that he was coming and was ready to offer any advice or assistance they needed.

“We were chatting and I ran into them a couple of times,” Cooper said. “It was analytical, I was talking about the structure of the festival and just trying to help them however I could. I have an eye for that. I can’t help it.

Before being named executive director of Sundance, Cooper spent 20 years at the Sundance Institute film festival, where he started in 1989 as a volunteer finding housing for filmmakers and began working his way up to the job. The highest.

As director of programming at Sundance, he led a team that screened the thousands of films submitted for review each year. As executive director, he led actors and directors around Park City, Utah, where the festival is held.

While to a foreigner it might seem like watching movies and mingling with movie stars was an easy way to earn a living, the task of organizing an event like a film festival, even on a small scale like Port Townsend, is a challenge.

When Cooper is approached for advice, he jumps right into the details of structuring the event.

“Everyone shows too many films in our festival as far as I’m concerned,” Cooper said. “There was a time when Toronto, which is a 10-day festival, was showing 400 films.”

Sundance, he said, continually cut its schedule to keep the six-day event manageable, which meant fewer, higher-quality films, but also led to heated disagreements between programmers.

“It’s really difficult when you watch so many movies and you know that someone’s dreams and ambition are tied to every movie and you’re not going to show as much as the year before,” said said Cooper.

“We argued a lot. It was two days of hell. But from there, you get the highest quality program possible.

On Friday night, Cooper spoke at a screening of All Is Lost (2013) at the Rose Theater about his work with its star, Redford, his work at the Sundance Institute and Film Festival, and the changing nature of independent cinema.

Cooper had no involvement with All Is Lost, in which Redford plays a sailor whose ship begins to sink after hitting a shipping container. Redford is the only character in the film who has virtually no dialogue.

“Even though it’s Redford, it’s still an independent film and that was a lot of his vision,” Cooper said. “I find it gripping. It’s about a man trying to survive on the ocean and I thought a lot of people here might relate to that.

He added with a laugh, “They’re also tolerant of artistic dishes.”

Most of the films on offer at the Port Townsend Film Festival will also be online from Monday to October 2.

Full program information is available at


Journalist Paula Hunt can be reached at [email protected]

About Monty S. Maynard

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