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1978: The First Year
The Sundance Film Festival did not begin life as the Sundance Film Festival, but rather as the Utah / US Film Festival. The initial event was first organized in 1978 in Salt Lake City, founded by Brigham Young University film grad Sterling Van Wagenen and John Earle of the Utah State Film Commission. (The festival’s name was an attempt to convey a balance between its focus on homegrown cinema and its relevance to the state’s moviegoers.) The threefold aim of the event was to attract filmmakers to Utah, to celebrate American film, and to promote the work of independent and regional filmmakers (i.e. those working outside the Hollywood system). At the time, Wagenen was working for Robert Redford’s Wildwood company, so he brought the actor and long-time Utah resident on board as the festival’s chairman. (Redford is often wrongly described as the founder of the festival.) In its first year, only eight films played in competition and Van Wagenen and Earle’s event ended up $40,000 in debt, however the fact that the competition films had done better at the box office than retrospective titles such as Midnight Cowboy, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Sweet Smell of Success was highly promising for future success.