Setting the pace for Sundance Film Festival


When professor Roger Pace, PhD. and professor Eric Pierson, PhD., realized they had similar interests in film, they proposed taking a class of University of San Diego students to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. After receiving approval from the dean and posting flyers around campus, they walked down the hallway to their first informational meeting, wondering if anyone would attend.

As Pace and Pierson turned the corner, they found a crowd of 45 students pushing their way into the classroom.

“That was a defining moment for me,” Pace said. “That’s when we knew this was going to work.”

Pace, the Communication Studies Department Chair, spoke to a classroom of students last Thursday about the three-credit upper-division intersession course he teaches with Pierson each January at the Sundance Film Festival. He discussed the origin of the festival, information about the course, and notable memories from his experience.

The festival, which was originally held in Salt Lake City, moved to the ski resort town of Park City in 1981. The organizers, among them actor Robert Redford, wanted independent films to be the focus of the event.

Pace explained how the name Sundance Film Festival came from Redford’s character in the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“Independent films are hard to define, but films can be independent in three ways,” said Pace said. “They are independent in financing. They focus on subject matter that Hollywood is afraid people won’t go see. They are produced by people who Hollywood shuts out, such as Native Americans.”

According to Pace, Sundance’s mission is to give a chance to filmmakers who do not usually have one.

“The purpose of Sundance is to make films that Hollywood doesn’t want to make,” Pace said. “It allows voices to be heard that are not traditionally heard in theaters.”

Pace mentioned a famous photograph from the early days of the festival of Redford handing out tickets in front of an Egyptian statue trying to get people to come watch movies.

“Every screen gets sold out now,” Pace said. “People no longer have to stand outside and give away tickets.”

The producers of Sundance pre-screen around 4,000 films and admit 174 films, so it is increasingly difficult for films to be noticed and accepted into the festival.

“Everyone tries to get into the big-name movies, so they sell out quickly,” Pace said. “We require students to see at least 10 to 15 films, but most see more. We discourage them from seeing too many premieres.”

This January will mark the 12th year that Pace and Pierson have been accompanying students to the festival. During the previous 11 years combined, they have taken about 300 USD students to Sundance.

There are no prerequisites for the course. In the past, they have had a variety of majors represented, including Communication Studies, English, and Theater. Acceptance into the course is determined on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Some of students have a background in film, and some don’t know anything about it,” Pace said. “A small number of them get interested in making films, and some even make it into the field. The festival isn’t about people who are interested in the profession. It’s about the appreciation of the profession.”

To complete their coursework, Pace and Pierson turn a hotel conference room into a classroom. They talk about film and teach the students how to properly write film reviews.

When the Sundance officially begins, they blend the coursework into the festival.

“One of my favorite things about the festival is that the stars and directors often come out to talk after the film shows,” Pace said.

Pace recounted an event during last year’s festival while waiting for a producer of “The D Train’’ to come out after the film finished playing. A Sundance employee walked onto stage to tell the disappointed audience that the producer was not able to make it.

“Jack Black (one of the movie’s stars) then came out in Kung Fu mode, shouting at people, hugging the audience members, and giving everyone high fives,” Pace said.  “It was the single funniest review of a film I have ever seen.

Pace and Pierson have a debriefing with the students when they return to USD to discuss these moments and the overall Sundance experience.

Their reactions are usually gratifying and enthusiastic,” Pace said. “That’s why they tell their friends to come the next year.”

Pace and Pierson have a tradition every year on the plane ride home, in which they discuss whether they want to teach this course again.

“Every year it has been a very short conversation,” Pace said. “Bringing students to the Sundance Film Festival is the most enjoyable academic thing I do all year.”