LOS ANGELES For a guy with one of the biggest jobs in movies, John Cooper keeps an extremely low profile. He is the director of the Sundance Film Festival, yet Robert Redford remains its public face. Cooper loathes red carpets, preferring a quiet life in suburban Los Angeles with his husband and three daughters.
He has even been known to go off the grid for a bit at his own festival. One year he decompressed by slipping off to the hotel room of the former Tammy Faye Bakker to watch Disney’s “Pollyanna” (1960) on television. (She was there for Fenton Bailey’s documentary “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”)
But don’t mistake Cooper’s low-key politeness as weakness. Behind the calm exterior is the spinning mind of a man who oversees the programming of 121 films (culled from more than 4,000 submissions, starting in June) and the logistics of an event that draws more than 45,000 to a ski town and deploys 1,825 volunteers.
Now it is Cooper’s job to lead a festival built on youth and cinematic rebellion into a deeper phase of adulthood - its 30s. Sundance, which opens its 30th installment in Park City, Utah, on Thursday, faces an array of challenges as it ages, and there are no easy answers.
How this mountain film festival maintains its relevance as competitors multiply is one question. Already, some younger creative minds are wandering away from filmmaking, deciding that it is cooler and more lucrative to found the next Snapchat. Then there is the sensitive issue of succession. “Without Robert Redford, will the festival lose some intangible ephemeral quality that his presence helped sustain?” asked Reed Martin, author of “The Reel Truth,” a guide to independent film production.
Cooper’s job has also changed. Now, instead of just fending off aspirants, he must do his share of reverse pleading - trying to convince filmmakers and agents who were once desperate to land a spot at Sundance not to bypass the festival. As social media has sped word-of-mouth, directors have learned that Sundance’s heat can wilt films as easily as it can make them flourish.
“I didn’t get a chance at that film, and I would have loved to,” Cooper said of Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” which is set for release by Fox Searchlight on March 7.
Sundance has a strong leadership bench that includes Keri Putnam, executive director of the nonprofit Sundance Institute. (And, for the record, Redford, the festival’s 77-year-old founder, has no plans to go anywhere anytime soon.) But the festival’s best hope of smoothly navigating the squalls ahead is Cooper, 57. After all, he has spent 25 years at the institute, working in nearly every department, and he has faced serious problems before.
When he took over the Sundance festival five years ago, it was in crisis. In particular, a raft of specialty film companies were closing because of declining DVD sales and broader financing troubles. “It was at the height of the financial crisis, and everyone was in a panic,” Cooper said. “It made me focus very intensely on core values of the festival and make sure we were lean and fierce enough to survive.”
The festival, Redford fretted, had also grown too cozy with the specialty film divisions of more mainstream studios under Geoffrey Gilmore, Cooper’s showier predecessor. (Gilmore left of his own accord to become chief creative officer at Tribeca Enterprises, which runs the Tribeca Film Festival; a spokeswoman said he was unavailable for comment.)
“For a long time, I discovered, John was the shy guy almost under cover but doing almost all the work,” Redford said.
A quick glance through the 2014 Sundance program guide shows Cooper’s fingerprints in ways big and small. The opening-night films include a documentary, “The Green Prince,” about a Palestinian man who became an Israeli spy, and “Whiplash,” starring the young actor Miles Teller. Films by female directors? Gay-themed films? “John was the one who wanted to push women’s films and LGBT films, and long before that was socially tenable,” Redford said.
When he became director, Cooper and his programming chief, Trevor Groth, also added a section, called Next, dedicated to low-budget, truly independent films. “Directing energy into that section made everyone feel reinvigorated about Sundance and what it could be,” said Josh Welsh, president of Film Independent, which runs the Los Angeles Film Festival and puts on the Film Independent Spirit Awards.
Groth jokingly compares Cooper to an old “Saturday Night Live” sketch depicting President Ronald Reagan as a humble, sweet guy in public and a trilingual drill sergeant in private. “He’s been more than a mentor and colleague - I owe him everything - but I’m not going to say he is an easy boss,” Groth said. “He has strong opinions and voices them.”
Putnam, the Sundance Institute’s executive director, said of Cooper: “He has an incredible ability to distill diverse points of view, which is extremely difficult. But he never wears it in the form of stress. That’s composure, isn’t it?”
Cooper, who favors sneakers and jeans, grew up in rural Coalinga, Calif., near Fresno. For a gay teenager, it wasn’t the most friendly place. “I was the one joining the square-dancing demonstration,” he joked. The town’s movie theater was an escape.
But he first decided to pursue dance - tap - and then acting, moving to New York in 1979. In February 1988 he was flying to Manhattan from San Francisco and, to save $100, bought a ticket with a layover in Salt Lake City. A friend invited him to pass the time at a local bar, and there he met a group of people who worked at Sundance. A few months later he returned to Utah to work at the organization’s summer film workshops and essentially never left.
Early on, he worked in logistics. (”Alan Alda is on the late flight in. How do we get him up the mountain?” Cooper said by way of example.) But perhaps the best training for leading Sundance came from an overflowing cardboard box. “It was a bunch of short films nobody knew what to do with,” he said. So he started a shorts program, ultimately single-handedly screening 1,500 shorts annually.
“That,” Cooper said, “is what taught me to make quick decisions.”
In Park City, Cooper will be whisked from theater to theater in an SUV; he tries to introduce as many films before their premieres as he can. But he also goes to bed early - that, along with a torrent of hand sanitizer, is how he avoids the Sundance flu, he said. “Now everyone knows why I have such wet hands.”