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It's the 40th edition of Sundance — but the festival is looking forward, not back

The Sundance Film Festival marks its 40th edition this year. Above, the Egyptian Theatre is pictured during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
Matt Winkelmeyer
Getty Images
The Sundance Film Festival marks its 40th edition this year. Above, the Egyptian Theatre is pictured during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

The Sundance Film Festival — which begins on Thursday — is celebrating its 40th edition this year. But beyond a gala and some retrospective screenings, you won't see a lot of looking back.

"You won't see us being too nostalgic," says festival director Eugene Hernandez. "We really feel like the best way to honor the history of Sundance and the history of independent storytelling is by looking ahead."

This year, Sundance organizers say they received a record 17,000 films from around the world submitted for consideration. That's a lot of growth; the first year featured "maybe 25 films" and a handful of documentaries and "maybe 100 people wandered around out in front of the theater," Robert Redford told NPR in 2017.

"I thought this is probably not going to work, but slowly it caught on and then it caught fire," Redford said. "Now it's almost out of control, but the mission was accomplished: To create the space for other voices in film to get their stories told and be seen."

The festival began in Salt Lake City in 1978, to promote indie films as well as the state of Utah. After it moved to the ski resort town Park City, Redford took it over under the auspices of his Sundance Institute. (If you're scratching your head over the math that the festival is celebrating its 40th in 2024 after beginning in 1978 that's because it skipped a few years.)

Ever since, filmmakers and film lovers have gathered there for weeks of movie premieres, panels, parties and deal-making. Sundance earned a reputation for scouting talent and buzzy titles, and helped launch careers for many top filmmakers. Some of the films even went on to become blockbusters or win awards in Hollywood.

Big films that began at Sundance

Snow covers Main Street in Park City in January 2001.
Michael Smith/Newsmakers / Getty Images
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Snow covers Main Street in Park City in January 2001.

Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen's neo-noir crime film, was introduced to Sundance audiences in 1984. It later won two Independent Spirit Awards.

Sex, Lies and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh's feature debut, created a sensation in 1989. It won four Spirit Awards and was nominated for an Oscar. Soderbergh has a film in this year's lineup, Presence.

Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino's feature debut, premiered in 1992.

Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater's romance, was presented at Sundance in 1995. Then came Boyhood, in 2014, which later picked up Golden Globe Awards, BAFTA Awards and an Oscar.

Memento, Christopher Nolan's thriller, won accolades in 2001. Nolan will receive the Inaugural Sundance Institute Trailblazer Award at this year's festival.

Y tu mamá también, Alfonso Cuarón's 2001 Mexican road trip movie, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards.

Little Miss Sunshine, went on from its 2006 Sundance premiere to win two Oscars.

Whiplash, Damien Chazelle's 2014 psychological drama, also won Oscars and awards at all the other major ceremonies.

Get Out, Jordan Peele's 2017 thriller, was nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and won Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars.

CODA, about a deaf father struggling to understand his hearing daughter's dreams to sing, won three Oscars in 2022, including for Best Picture.

17,000 films were submitted this year

The Sundance Film Festival in January 2006.
Scott Halleran / Getty Images
Getty Images
The Sundance Film Festival in January 2006.

Sundance audiences are already buzzing about this year's premieres, like the post apocalyptic romance Love Me. It stars Steven Yeun and Kristen Stewart, who personify a lovestruck satellite and a buoy who meet online.

Another film premiering at Sundance is a satire: The American Society of Magical Negroes. It stars Justice Smith and David Alan Grier.

Exhibiting Forgiveness stars André Holland as a visual artist, with his singer wife played by Andra Day. Real life painter Titus Kaphar says his first feature film "is for anybody who's ever struggled with forgiveness."

Veni Vidi Vici, is a comedy whodunit from Austria about a billionaire family that likes outdoor adventure.

Among the documentaries the festival is known for are offerings on Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, Superman star Christopher Reeve, singer Luther Vandrossand the 46 musical superstars who gathered in 1985 to sing "We are the World" to raise money for African famine relief. The Greatest Night in Pop chronicles that moment.

Other musical documentaries include the stories of the band Devo and the Lollapalooza festival. One film features experimental music producer Brian Eno; its scenes will be ordered differently each time it screens, using generative software.

The use of artificial intelligence has been controversial among film writers and performers, but a number of this year's filmmakers have collaborated with AI to tell their stories. Among them is Rashad Newsome, whose project"Being (the Digital Griot)" features an onscreen AI figure that vogues and gives advice based on data sets from Black theorists, poets and activists.

All these films and more will be available online during the second half of the Sundance Film festival, for those who can't make it to the mountain.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As an arts correspondent based at NPR West, Mandalit del Barco reports and produces stories about film, television, music, visual arts, dance and other topics. Over the years, she has also covered everything from street gangs to Hollywood, police and prisons, marijuana, immigration, race relations, natural disasters, Latino arts and urban street culture (including hip hop dance, music, and art). Every year, she covers the Oscars and the Grammy awards for NPR, as well as the Sundance Film Festival and other events. Her news reports, feature stories and photos, filed from Los Angeles and abroad, can be heard on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Alt.latino, and npr.org.