PORT TOWNSEND — Despite retiring after 10 years as executive director of the Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper can’t completely let go of being the guy in charge by sitting back and simply enjoying a showcase of new, independent and innovative cinema.
Cooper, who oversaw all aspects of one of the most famous and influential venues and markets for film in the world from 2010-2020, was honored Friday at the Port Townsend Film Festival for his contributions and dedication to independent film and filmmakers.
After special guests were welcomed with red-carpet treatment, arriving in vintage cars provided by the Rakers Car Club, at the base of the Taylor Street stairs at Haller Fountain, Cooper was honored at the Rose Theatre, where All is Lost, a film starring Sundance founder Robert Redford, was screened.
The festival continues today and Sunday, offering nearly 60 films in five venues.
In addition, a nightly outdoor movie is screened for free on Taylor Street, culminating with a showing on Sunday of Napoleon Dynamite, a film created by the other two special guests of the festival, Jared and Jerusha Hess.
An awards ceremony for the husband-and-wife team is planned at 6:30 p.m. today at the American Legion Hall on Water Street.
This was not Cooper’s first time in Port Townsend — he’s visited his sister-in-law who has a house in the community — but it was his first time at the film festival.
He was supposed to attend last year, but the event went online due to the pandemic.
Determined not to sit another year out, Cooper told Executive Director Danielle McClelland and director of programming Jane Julian that he was coming and he was ready to offer any advice or assistance they needed.
“We would chat and I met with the two of them a few times,” Cooper said. “It was analytical, talking about the structure of the festival and just trying to help them along however I could. I do have an eye towards that. I can’t help it.”
Prior to being named Sundance’s executive director, Cooper spent 20 years at the Sundance Institute’s film festival, where he began in 1989 as a volunteer finding housing for filmmakers and began working his way up toward the top job.
As director of programming at Sundance, he led a team that screened the thousands of films submitted every year for consideration. As executive director, he shepherded actors and directors around Park City, Utah, where the festival is held.
While to an outsider it might appear that watching movies and mingling with movie stars was an easy way to make a living, the task of organizing an event like a film festival, even on a small scale like Port Townsend’s, is challenging.
When Cooper’s approached for advice, he goes straight to the nuts and bolts of structuring the event.
“Everybody shows too many films in our festival as far as I’m concerned,” Cooper said. “There was a point where Toronto, which is a 10-day festival, was showing 400 films.”
Sundance, he said, continually trimmed its schedule to keep the six-day event manageable, which meant fewer, better films but also led to hotter disagreements among the programmers.
“It’s really hard when you’re watching so many films and you know that someone’s dreams and ambition are connected to each film and you’re not going to show as many as you did the year before,” Cooper said.
“We argued a lot. It was two days of hell. But out of that you get a program that’s the highest quality possible.”
Friday night Cooper spoke at a screening of All Is Lost (2013) at the Rose Theatre about his work with its star, Redford, his work at the Sundance Institute and Film Festival and the changing nature of independent filmmaking.
Cooper had no involvement with All Is Lost, in which Redford plays a sailor whose vessel starts to sink after it collides with a shipping container. Redford is the only character in the film, which has practically no dialogue.
“Even though it’s Redford, it’s still an independent film and a lot of it was his vision,” Cooper. “I find it gripping. It’s about a man trying to survive on the ocean and I thought a lot of people here could relate to that.”
He added with a laugh, “They’re also tolerant of artsy fare.”
Most of the films offered at the Port Townsend Film Festival also will be online this coming Monday through Oct. 2.
Full program information is available at www.ptfilmfest.com.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at Paula.Hunt@soundpublishing.com