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By Ben Bowers
on 1.24.14
Photo by Sonia Recchia

Trevor Groth first visited the Sundance Film Festival in 1989 at the age of 17. The experience changed his life, eventually leading him to take a job in 1992 as a development assistant for the Sundance Institute; he’s worked there ever since. In 2009 he took the reins as Director of Programming and today presides over the strategic planning and selection process of the now-iconic film festival. Translation? He’s paid to watch and discuss movies produced by the planet’s most talented filmmakers and then picks which movies the world should definitely see. We caught up him in the middle of the 2013 festival to pick his brain about his process, how to experience the festival right and the state of the indie film scene at large.

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Q.
What’s one thing every man should know?
A.
The importance of taking risks, following chances and seeing where that leads you. Twenty years ago I went to see a movie at the Sundance Film Festival on a whim, and it changed my entire life.

Q.
What are you working on right now?
A.
We are keeping busy over here — with our annual Sundance Film Festival, Sundance London film and music festival, and NEXT WEEKEND film festival in Los Angeles, as well as a series of ShortsLabs public workshops and a short film program that tours art house theaters across the country. I am very lucky to work with an incredible team of programmers on these initiatives and to have such a rich diversity of independent films to choose from and work with.

I knew that films like Precious and Napoleon Dynamite were incredible but I wasn’t sure what the public reaction would be. I was glad to see the public respond to them in much the same way my team and I did.

Q:
Who or what influences you?
A:
Not surprisingly, independent film and filmmakers are a huge influence on me. Being surrounded by so much creativity and so many new ideas constantly refreshes and energizes me. And my wife and kids — they’re pretty rad.

Q.
What’s the most challenging aspect of being Sundance’s Director of Programming?
A.
I see so many films each year that I love, and narrowing it down to the 120 or so feature films that we can show at our festival is a painful process.

Q.
A total of 121 feature films will be shown at this year’s festival. Can you give us a brief overview of the process you and your team apply to pick the final selections?
A.
First, we work on an ongoing basis with filmmakers and some distributors to see what they’re working on that we might be interested in. Our public submissions process opens up in the summer and my programming team and I spend the next several months watching, discussing, sharing and yes, arguing about, the films we see. We eventually come to a consensus (of sorts) on which films we select, and then it’s a mad dash to help our filmmakers get everything ready for the 10 days of the festival.

Q.
What are some of the qualities you personally look for in great films?
A.
I love being surprised. Each year when we begin our programming process, I go into it with no expectations or ideas about what I want to see. We really keep an open mind and see what the independent film community has to say. That said, I do have particular affinities for genre films and directors with strong visions.

Q.
You’re also closely involved with Sundance Institute’s ShortLab program. Talk to us about the importance of that program. How did short films become an area of interest for you?
A.
My first job with the festival was as a short film programmer, and our festival has an incredible legacy of discovery through our short film program — artists including Wes Anderson, Todd Haynes, Spike Jonze, Debra Granik, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Jason Reitman got their start there. Short Film as a form is critical to the independent film community, and we want to support and encourage that work.

Q.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the festival and your 20th anniversary of working for Sundance Institute. How has Sundance evolved in your eyes?
A.
The independent film community has grown and evolved in such big ways, and in many ways, the Festival has mirrored that. We’ve become a key event on the global cultural calendar, which speaks to the incredible quality of the work filmmakers submit to us. Perhaps more importantly, I think audiences have come to trust our festival — they might take a chance on a film we’re showing even if it doesn’t seem like something they’d be interested in. We feel incredibly fortunate about that.

Q.
Sundance is widely known as a launching pad for groundbreaking films as well as the directors and actors who help make them. As Director of Programming, you’re often exposed to these talents before almost anyone else. During your tenure, have you ever been surprised by how attendees or the public at large responded to a film that premiered at Sundance?
A.
Absolutely. We select the films but it’s really up to the audience each year to find the films they love and rally behind them. Sometimes I have a hunch about what film might break out, but I love when it’s a slightly unexpected film, too. I knew that films like Precious and Napoleon Dynamite were incredible but I wasn’t sure what the public reaction would be. I was glad to see the public respond to them in much the same way my team and I did.

Q.
Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here, which was largely funded via online contributions through the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, is premiering at this year’s festival. Braff has said that the platform appealed to him over more traditional sources of funding because it guaranteed him complete creative control. What are your thoughts on the potential of crowd-funding as a means of fundraising for independent movies?
A.
Financing an independent film can be extremely difficult, so I’m glad there are new options for filmmakers to raise funds. The byproduct of that, too, is that you can start to build a supportive audience early, people who will follow the life of the film, from production to distribution. And actually, our Artist Services program has a collaboration with Kickstarter that has raised more than $7 million for filmmakers we support.

Q.
How much time do you devote to watching films?
A.
I see hundreds and hundreds of films each year, and for a few months out of the year, it takes up most of my day, from early mornings to late nights. It can be intense and exhausting, but it’s worth it to find the films you love. I can’t imagine doing it any other way.

Q.
What are some festival highlights and events you always look forward to?
A.
Meeting people! I try to devote as much time as possible to talking to filmmakers and audiences and hearing their reaction to the festival and the films we show. We have a very low-key brunch for all the directors, which is a nice opportunity to spend time with them in a relaxed setting.

Q.
Is there any special advice you have for first time Sundance attendees?
A.
See everything you possibly can and take a chance on a film you normally wouldn’t. A shorts program is an incredible ride through different styles and stories. Our New Frontier program looks at what the future of storytelling might be. World Cinema showcases really talented voices from around the world. These films screen side by side and we hope that they are experienced as such.

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