Sundance Film Festival Kicks Off With Jodie Foster, Robert Downey Jr, and More

Sundance Film Festival Kicks Off With Jodie Foster, Robert Downey Jr, and More

On Thursday night, the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which is celebrating its 40th edition this year, was bustling. Banners hung on snowy Main Street, Leon Bridges was performing at a new music venue and the Eccles Theatre was packed for one of the opening films: “Freaky Tales.”

And around 7 p.m., some 500 guests shuttled to a convention center about 20 minutes away in Kamas, Utah, for the festival’s Opening Night Gala, hosted by the Sundance Institute. The organization, which puts on the festival and has the mission of supporting independent filmmakers, held this type of fund-raising event for the first time last year.

The Sundance Institute brought together a crowd of people, which included film industry players like Christopher Nolan, who found early success through the festival. They filed into a cocktail reception, spread across two floors.

The dress code, listed as “upscale mountain chic,” led to ensembles ranging from boxy sweaters to velvet suits. Guests discussed the film lineups, ate dates wrapped with bacon and drank espresso martinis. Nearby, actors and actresses posed for photographers and dredged up old festival memories.

Sundance has become known for propelling little-known films and filmmakers into the spotlight. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), “American Psycho” (2000), “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) and “CODA” (2021) all emerged from Park City.

Jodie Foster remembered the festival in the 1980s. “I was on the jury for the year of ‘Sex, Lies, and Videotape,’ which was a big year,” she said, referring to Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 film.

“One year, I produced a movie, and everyone was younger than me, and they all went out all night, and then at 5:30 a.m. I woke up and had breakfast with them,” Ms. Foster said, adding, “We had pancakes and that was the most fun thing.”

(Ms. Foster’s partner, Alexandra Hedison, who was standing beside her, was at Sundance for the first time this year showing her film “Alok.”)

Jennifer Grey, who plays a character named Marcia in the film “A Real Pain,” said the actor John Slattery connected the actress to her ex-husband at the festival in the 1990s.

“We went to this restaurant for breakfast, a place everybody used to go to,” Ms. Grey said, “and I said, ‘Who is that?’ John then introduced us.” (Ms. Grey and her partner announced their split in 2020.)

Kristen Stewart, who was honored at the gala and wearing a black-and-white look by Chanel, started attending Sundance in the 2000s.

“Back then I was, like, wearing no-show socks and my Hollister jeans,” Ms. Stewart said, “and I was like, ‘I just want to hang out with all the best actors.’”

She felt at home. “If you make an independent film in America it’s because you’re crazy,” she said. “You’re trying to do something impossible and stupid, but you do it because you could actually touch someone. Coming here makes you feel less ridiculous because we are all doing this. It’s the most affirming thing.”

Jesse Eisenberg, who directed Ms. Grey in “A Real Pain,” noted that he was about the same age as Sundance. “I wonder if the festival also has back problems?” he joked.

He added that for him, these weeks are work, and he is often distracted. “The truth is when I’m at Sundance I am always nervous because I am here for something that has some kind of stakes,” he said.

After cocktails, guests sat for a three-course meal, which included trout, roast beef and polenta. The evening raised $1.6 million.

In a speech on stage, Christopher Nolan, who was honored at the gala, credited the festival with helping to start his career after “Memento” premiered in 2001. “It enabled so much more that came after it,” Mr. Nolan told the audience.

But Robert Downey Jr., who introduced the filmmaker, joked that he wasn’t sure the “Oppenheimer” director, who is camera-weary, was actually happy to be discovered.

Mr. Nolan, he said, “needs his spirits lifted.”

“He’s a bit blue because a terrible tragedy has befallen him,” Mr. Downey continued. “He has become recognizable on the street.”

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