Organic Hollywood: The Sundance Group

Organic Hollywood

The Sundance Group

Melanie Eppright


Provo Canyon, Utah is the birthplace of Robert Redford’s Sundance Group.  People may recognize the Sundance trademark or hear “Sundance” and associate it with independent film, which is correct but there is much more to the Sundance Group. Through various channels, the Sundance Group is committed to fostering artistic expression, original thinking and the natural environment. The Sundance Group consists of non-profit and for-profit entities, which generate their own revenue while simultaneously relying on private donors in order to keep the Group operating. This paper will discuss how each separate of part of the Sundance Group operates and how it strives to bolster its commitment to art, originality and the environment.

The Origins of the Sundance Resort

      In 1961, Robert Redford, an iconic American actor and director, bought two acres of land for $500 in Provo Canyon, Utah. He built a log cabin for his family and developed a love for area and natural environment surrounding his cabin. However, development was threatening the natural space. In order to preserve this land, Redford purchased 6,000 acres of land in Provo Canyon, which included a ski resort owned by a Scottish, immigrant family called, the Stewarts. With his purchase, Redford planned to create a resort that would not harm Provo Canyon’s natural environment.

Redford was not a businessman and in Inc. Magazine he explains he had to learn about business quickly. The actor had to convincingly pitch his ideas to banks and investors to receive the proper funding. When Redford invited his New York investors out to Provo, “all they saw was real-estate.” It soon became clear to Redford and his investors they were not on the same page. Subsequently, the investors sold their shares back to the actor turned businessman. Even though Redford needed to make a profit off his venture, he wanted to make sure he was earning a “quality profit,” which meant preserving his vision, commitment to the arts and the natural environment even if it meant reducing the profit margin.

Today, the resort makes use of several conservation practices to help preserve the natural environment such as linen re-use program in which guest room towels, and sheets are not cleaned or changed daily, non-toxic cleaning products and a resort wide recycling initiative. Local artisans make soap for guest room, which promotes artistic vision. In addition to these practices, the resort buys local and or organic produce, organic t-shirts, housewares made from natural resources and chlorine-free paper products. Sundance keeps a fulltime naturalist on staff that leads nature hikes and educates guests on preserving the environment.

In addition to the aforementioned conservation efforts, Sundance powers the entire resort with wind energy. Even though wind power is more expensive, Redford and the Sundance staff feel it is necessary to incorporate this technology into the resort as they feel the environmental benefits outweigh the financial costs.  Here are some statistics that help put Sundance’s conservation into perspective:

“Our commitment has an environmental impact that is similar to: planting   12,502 mature trees ornot driving more than over 3,068,581 miles in an            average passenger car or taking 263 cars off the road for a year (6).”

The Sundance Institute and Film Festival

Even though Redford was making strides in preserving the environment he simultaneously grew discontent with Hollywood. As an actor, he realized the quality of films was deteriorating, in order for studio executive to make a profit. In the late 1960s, Redford observed how the film industry was becoming formulaic. In an article with Inc. Magazine, Redford describes his feelings about the current state of film making further:

“Film viewing is extremely impersonal now; it’s almost hostile. You have 40 screens. You usher people in and out as quickly as possible to get in as many [shows] per day [as possible]. The real money is made in the concessions (Inc.)”

Instead of sitting idly by, Redford decided to take action, which lead to the creation of the Sundance Institute and the world renowned Sundance Film Festival.

First, Redford established the Sundance Institute, which served as an association aimed at developing budding talent in film, theater and music all striving to take a stand against the hostile, formulaic environment of Hollywood. According to Inc. Magazine, Redford initially funded the institute with his own money. However, today, the institute operates on $15 million annually, which is generated by the Sundance Film Festival, sponsors, grants and private institutions.

The Sundance Institute is a very selective operation. Film applicants are required to submit a script and or a 10-minute film. Six to eight applications are accepted out of 3,000 submissions.  If accepted, the students or fellows as they are called attend workshops and labs. In addition to these learning opportunities, the fellows are given room and board and tools such as rehearsal space and equipment to turn their screenplays into well developed four or five scene films. However, what Redford and the Institute feel is most important is the experience the fellows take away from their time at Sundance.

A valuable aspect of the Sundance Institute is that the filmmakers are in a nurturing, safe environment where they do not have to worry about someone stealing their ideas. In labs and workshops instructors—including Redford himself—visit each fellow and discuss the possibilities for each person’s story. An invaluable component of the Sundance Institute is the amount of varied opinions and perspectives shared with the fellows by their counterparts, instructors and special guests including Denzel Washington, Katherine Biggelow and Stanley Tucci. Michael Lehmann, director and creative advisor to Sundance says:

“What makes the Sundance Institute the Sundance Institute is its desire to take risks. Consumer research is what makes Hollywood movies, Hollywood movies. Studios are first and foremost market driven. They try to figure out what audiences want and give it to them. Beyond that they’re not sure what to do. However, Sundance reverses the process and starts with an artistic vision (7).”

The Sundance Film Festival, which is probably more well known and or recognized than the actual Sundance Institute is an entity that helps fund the fellows’ education. The Film Festival takes place every January in Park City, Utah located about an hour drive from Provo Canyon, which is home to the institute and resort. In America and around the world, the Sundance trademark printed on a movie poster or the word attached to a movie represents quality and art, which is precisely why so many filmmakers want their work to be part of the film festival.              Each December, 200 films are chosen for the Festival line-up out of 9,000 submissions and each year 50,000 people attend the festival, which provides artists a remarkable chance for their work to be seen, which can be half the battle in filmmaking.

Today, Sundance is completely funded by donor support. Corporate sponsors include: Southwest Airlines: Entertainment Weekly: HP: Acura: Chase Sapphire: L’Oreal: Timberland and Stella Artois. Smaller, local businesses help manage festival operations and private donors and ticket sales also help generate financial support. (1).

In order to attract donors, Sundance provides demographics of its target audience to help companies decide whether or not a company’s sponsorship of Sundance makes sense. Of the 50,000 festival attendees, 70% earn over 100K per year, 63% are women, 61% of attendees would be inclined to buy the product of a Festival sponsor, 66% traveled to the Festival from another state or country and the largest age group represented is 36-45 with 33.4%. A close second would be people ages 25-35 with 25.5%.  Sundance attracts an educated crowd. 49% of attendees have a Bachelor’s degree and 25% have a Master’s degree (1).

In addition to providing demographics, Sundance communicates the media benefits of sponsoring the festival. 758 accredited press groups from 24 countries attend the event, and last year’s festival generated over 39,000 articles in print and online publications such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and People. Sundance press has reached all around the world in countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Australia.  In addition, the Festival was featured in 1,650 broadcast stories on networks such as MSNBC, FOX, MTV and PBS. Sundance reports that the total media value for press coverage totaled $41,000 (1).

Sundance goes on to provide more details on how social networking and websites help build buzz around the Festival through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the Sundance website itself. Although Sundance needs sponsorship, the Festival is selective about whom it chooses to represent the brand and only accepts sponsorship from companies who share Sundance’s values of creativity and experimentation. In exchange for sponsorship, corporations are given commercial space before screenings and are allowed to use the Sundance trademark in their advertising.

Sundance Channel

The Sundance Channel, which launched in 1996, is another platform Robert Redford and Co. have established for fostering creativity and originality. The network does so through producing and airing original series and films that feature current, established talent as well as new artists. Although Redford is committed to preserving artistic vision and innovative thinking, he has not strayed from his commitment of preserving the environment. In fact, Redford uses Sundance Channel to educate people on the environment.

In 2007, Sundance Channel developed three environmentally driven original series, which aired in an hour and a half block on Tuesday nights appropriately titled, “The Green”. Among these series was a show called, “Big Ideas for a Small Planet”, which showcased green-entrepreneurs in a positive, optimistic light. In a 2007 interview with Amanda Little of Grist [1], Redford said people do not respond to negativity and a doom and gloom attitude.

In order for people to become more educated about the problems plaguing the environment, they need to be approached with positivity and solutions. Redford notes that despite the lack of environmental reform put in place by the government, a huge grassroots shift towards environmental reform has developed. Certain people are taking their own initiative to combat environmental damage, which is who and what “Big Ideas for a Small Planet,” wants to showcase.

Getting these stories out there is about educating the public and inspiring others to make changes in how they use and treat the natural environment. Individuals tend to feel as though they do not have enough of an impact to make a difference; however, “Big Ideas” acknowledges that one person alone cannot make a difference, but if everyone tries to make better decisions and does his or her part the human population can make strides in preserving the environment as a community.

Around 2006, about a year before “The Green”, debuted on Sundance Channel, environmentalism became trendy. In her interview with Redford, Amanda Little asked Redford what he thought about environmentalism becoming a trend. In short, the activist said we cannot afford for environmentalism to be a fad, which is why Sundance Channel created its green programing, to show how individuals can incorporate eco-friendly practices into their daily lives.

Broadcasting Quality

In light of increased Internet video streaming sites, the Sundane Institute has decided to partner with Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and iTunes and stream films, and shows with the Sundance trademark. Kerri Putnam, Sundance Institute executive director explained before this move, artists had to make their own deals with these streaming platforms. Now that Sundance is facilitating these efforts, filmmakers and their work will receive increased exposure and distribution (4).

The Sundance Catalog

            In 1969, when Redford began developing the Sundance Resort in Sundance Village he opened a general store selling clothing and crafts made by local artists. As years went by, people began to visit Sundance Village and the general store. Upon their departure, they would write and call the explaining that they had visited and upon returning home wanted to purchase more products, but did not know where to find them. In response to these requests, the general store mailed its first catalog after 20 years later years as a brick and mortar store. In 1989, the first catalog offered very few items, but over time, the catalog’s offering, reach and profitability grew.

Similar to the other Sundance entities, the Sundance catalog is committed to preserving artistic expression. The catalog offers many handcrafted items, most of which are jewelry and home products made my artists such as Heather B. Moore, who has established herself in the jewelry industry with her collection of charm necklaces and bracelets. Sundance jewelry is priced from $25 all the way up to $3,400 with most of the products costing at least $200. Therefore, the Sundance catalog has a wealthy customer base that can afford to pay for fine craftsmanship. However, it is important to note that Sundance does try to make originality affordable through its other lower priced jewelry and merchandise.

Sundance women’s’ wear boasts a free-spirited, almost hippie vibe. While the menswear assortment incorporates a classic all-American jeans and t-shirt aesthetic. Sundance offers a commitment to quality and ensures that although the catalog division of the Sundance Group is not perfect, it tries to take make a positive environmental impact. In its daily office practices, Sundance recycles paper aluminum, glass, electronics, pharmaceuticals, harmful cleaning products and other chemicals.

In addition to their recycling efforts, Sundance employees try to carpool or take public transportation as often as possible. On earth day, Sundance employees can either volunteer for neighborhood cleanup, or learn about sustainability.

Sundance is mindful of the environment when distributing the catalog and shipping orders. For example, Sundance uses corrugated shipping boxes made of recycled content and biodegradable packing peanuts when they are necessary for shipments.  Moreover, Sundance uses printers who promote sustainable forestry and most importantly Sundance does not over circulate the catalog. Instead, the company tries to get it into the hands of its target consumers so as not to waste paper or other natural resources printing and delivering the catalogs.

From personal experience, the first time I ever saw a Sundance catalog was at my friend Allie’s house where it was addressed to her mother. I even talked to her mother about it, telling her I had no idea it existed and she responded by telling me that it had been around for years and she had bought several things from Sundance. Knowing what I know now about Sundance’s target market, the catalog has done an excellent job of selective distribution. My mother does not receive the catalog nor do any of my other friends or their mothers, because they are not the target customers and Sundance is not concerned with over circulation in order to reach more people. The catalog wants to attain quality of customers not quantity.

Redford Center

            The Redford Center is a continuation of the Sundance group and its mission. Robert Redford and his children James, Shauna and Amy inspired the Center. The goal of the non-profit organization is similar to the other Sundance Group divisions—inspire activism through originality and art. On the organization’s website, Redford is quoted saying, “I have said it before and I believe it to be true, that art saved my life.” As a champion for the arts, Robert Redford wants to give a voice to those who are not normally heard and provide them with the tools and education they need to make a difference.

Even though Redford is passionate about preserving the environment, the Redford Center encourages all kinds of activism. For example, the center highlights joint efforts made by actress Rosario Dawson and nurse practitioner, Martha Ryan to provide prenatal care to homeless women. Additionally, James Berk is 19 years old and the youngest staff member at Oakland’s Mandela Food Co-op, which aims to provide healthy food to low-income neighborhoods. By giving these individuals a voice and a platform, Robert Redford is fostering a commitment to social responsibility on an individual basis by showing how people are working to make a difference in their communities.

The overarching theme of the Redford Center is to show how if everyone fights for a cause, volunteers or commits to do better in the world, the impact of our actions can have far reaching affects and will in turn inspire others to practice social responsibility.


            When you see the Sundance trademark or hear the word attached to a film it symbolizes quality and creativity, which is a credit to Robert Redford and his business. It is extremely hard to find a company that automatically resonates positively with consumers. In class, we have discussed how the perception of a company even Patagonia, which was founded upon the principles preserving the natural environment, can be skewed at times. We are not certain if customers buy the products for their sustainability, quality or style components. However, when it comes to an enterprise like Sundance, we know the consumers who watch the Festival movies, or television programs do so because they appreciate art and originality.

The key to having an innovative company is having an innovative founder. Fortunately, that is something Sundance will never lack. Redford constantly pushes himself to be an innovator and knows the danger of being complacent,  “when you have the good fortune to have success in your life, that is precisely the time you should reinvent yourself. Because you can get real stale. You can fall in love with yourself. (7)”

Works Cited

(1) Kennedy, Katie, and Jenny Song. “Sponsorship Overview.” Sundance Film      Festival. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2011. <           us/sponsorship-overview.pdf>.

(2) Little, Amanda. “Robert Redford Chats about the New Green Programming on            the Sundance Channel | Grist.” Grist | Environmental News, Commentary,    Advice. 17 Apr. 2007. Web. 19 Oct. 2011             <;.

(3) “Our Commitment.” Sundance Catalog. Sundance Catalog, 2011. Web. 19      Oct. 2011.             <>.

(4) Pond, Steve. “Sundance Institute Aggressively Expands Streaming Deals |      The Wrap Movies.” | Entertainment Industry Analysis,     Breaking Hollywood News. 17 July 2011. Web. 15 Dec. 2011.             < partners-itunes-hulu-netflix-and-others-support-indie-online-distribu>.

(5) Redford Center – Home. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.         <;.

(6) “Sundance Resort – Conserve, Wind Power.” Sundance Resort – Home. Web.             19 Oct. 2011.             <;.

(7) Zades |  Document.write(‘Sep, By Stephen H. “Creativity Regained, – Inc.        Article |” Small Business Ideas and Resources for Entrepreneurs.       Mansueto Ventures LLC, 1 Sept. 2003. Web. 19 Oct. 2011.             <;.

[1] Grist is an online magazine which reports environmental news


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