PARK CITY - The 2012 Sundance Film Festival kicked off on Thursday (January 19) with Robert Redford and his team's traditional opening press conference. 
As you may have already heard. Redford kicked things off on a gloomy note, referring to "the hard times we're living in," calling said times "dark and grim." Redford continued, of course, by emphasizing that the Sundance Film Festival isn't going to be dark and grim and that, as Festival Director John Cooper explained, "the independent film community is very healthy."
After the press conference, I attended a series of roundtable interviews with Redford, Cooper and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam to discuss, in more depth, The State of Sundance, 2012.
Continuing on the theme of independent cinema's health, Putnam explained, "Last year we had 5000 short films submitted, this year we had almost 8000. We've had over 5000 features submitted. The access to the means of production is not the problem. The quality level? You still have to pick the best. In terms of optimism, I look at it as broadening the definition of what success looks like in the afterlife of a film from a festival. I don't think it has to be just one route. It used to be that if you didn't get that deal to go out through whatever studio controlled the film prints going to the theaters, that was it. Now there are so many opportunities and I think as we evolve and those get monetized and there's more ways for people to split rights and be entrepreneurial, I think it's going to be great for the filmmakers, so I am upbeat."
With the beginning of the Festival, Sundance has announced a slew of ways in which the Festival was branching out online this year, including a deal with Yahoo to deliver a number of short films, as well as an ongoing series of digital events tied to the Festival.
Putnam observed, "One of our goals is to look at sustainability for artists' careers. We're not talking about anybody getting rich off of these platforms, but it builds a pipeline of revenue that then can feed back into an ongoing career and building their work, which is a huge piece of what we want to do.  I also think exposure in other territories leads to financing opportunities"
In addition to expanding the Sundance mission internationally through online ventures, a pilot Sundance London event will make its debut this spring.
"Sundance: London is, I think, a great prototype," Putnam raved. "It's a kinda an event with music and film together and it's a collaboration between Bob and some of the other entities and the Institute, we're providing the film programming. But I think it's a great model. It's a four-day festival of some of the best American independent work, presenting it to audiences in markets that maybe American independent work isn't as widely seen as it might be. I think our role, at the Institute, from a perspective of filling that part of our objective of getting this work seen, it shines a spotlight on some of the great work that's out there and hopefully will cause people to keep an eye out and keep a look-out and I think it may be a model that could be replicated in other locations, but we're going to take a wait-and-see and see how it goes."
As for the original-flavored Park City Sundance and Redford's description of our dark times, I asked Redford about whether the Film Festival feels different or has a different sensibility in an election year.
"Normally no, because the filmmakers take a look at what's going on and they make their own statements and we let them speak for themselves," Redford said. "I think things have intensified with the years of George Bush, because there is so much flagrant misstepping. I remember when I had to speak at the Festival in 2002, just three months after 9/11, I had serious misgivings about George Bush, but I had to put it aside to say, 'Look, we've been asked as a country to get behind our leader. I think collectively we have to do that, so I'm not going to say anything. We'll let these films speak for themselves.' From that point on, I stopped ever referring politically to anything. Now what happened, all the films that you've seen that have come through the Festival, from 'Restrepo' to 'Margin Call,' you now have a clear example of the destruction of that administration -- the two wars we were put into, the consequences of tax cuts -- is now sitting with us. I don't have to say anything. It so speaks for itself. Then, in addition, the filmmakers are speaking to it, because they're effected, their families, someone or their lives, or it's a chance for them to be critical of something they wouldn't have a voice in otherwise. So I think the films themselves speak to this in ways I don't have to say. I have very strong feelings, but I don't want to get in the way of what the films are saying, but I think you'll see they'll relate to what's going on."
Putnam was also able to find artistic advantages in a gloomy political climate.
"I think, if anything, the stasis that we see in government right now is kinda causing an outcry for more independent voices and more different kinds of thinking," she said. "It's not causing funding for the arts, that's for sure. But there was no funding in the previous administration either, so this isn't a down spiral in that regard. So I think the idea that there are ideas that are going to come from new places and independent voices outside of this establishment that's sorta ossified, makes it a great time for us."
But is there disappointment within the Institute and the independent film community that the Obama administration hasn't had a positive impact on funding and encouragement of the arts?
Putnam replied, "I think that given what Obama was handed going in, I don't know that anybody had reason to believe that there would sorta a burgeoning of arts funding. From a policy point of view, I'm sure that he and his government would love to do that, but I also don't think Sundance has ever looked to the government. We're a non-profit. We raise money all over. We actually do work with the NEA and we have funding from them and we're very grateful for that, but we don't look to the government to provide our resources. The independent film community is not traditionally used to doing that. I think maybe some of the performing arts and some museums are facing a bit of a harder time because they're more used to that pipe line."
For now, Redford and company are looking forward to meeting this year's presenting artists.
What will Redford's message to the filmmakers be this year?
"To know that we've got their back, but I think they know that, otherwise they wouldn't be here. But I think it's describing the pitfalls and not letting them get deluded enough to the point their disappointment would be greater if they don't get bought. They've got to know that it's a hard road and that I'm very sympathetic to what they've all done to get here, but be careful of the hype surrounding the Festival, because once they leave, the hype may disappear with them. So deal with the reality. Enjoy it while it's here, but enjoy it like you would Cinderella at the ball..."
Cooper noted that "hype" and "success" can be measured in different ways, expressing disappointment at the perception that there's a certain financial threshold Sundance favorites have to hit at the box office in order to reflect positively on the Festival and its artistry.
Cooper observed, "I'm more interested in the careers, getting other opportunities, how audiences respond to them. As long as audiences keep responding... When audiences go, "What is this crap that you're trying to sell us?" then I worry, but most of the time I hear the opposite. I still get emails about that movie 'Senna' from last year, which I told everybody, 'You've got to see 'Senna.'' Nobody saw it. I couldn't get anybody to see it. Now, throughout the year, it's like, "Oh, I finally saw 'Senna.' You were right." That's my success, those crazy emails from people."
So what films will Cooper be pushing on people this year?
"I think that 'Beast of the Southern Wild.' I have no idea how that's gonna play, but I'm trying to talk people into seeing that... It's just a very different style, dreamy. Those are the ones that you just don't know what audiences are going to absorb. You know they're going to absorb a straight-up comedy and things that are familiar. What unfamiliar that they're going to take in is always different. This film that's playing [Thursday], 'Searching For Sugar Man,' it's going to capture people's imaginations."
Stay keep following all of HitFix's Sundance 2012 coverage...
A long-time member of the TCA Board and a longer-time blogger of "American Idol," Dan Fienberg writes about TV, except for when he writes about movies or sometimes writes about the Red Sox. But never music. He would sound stupid talking about music.