JT: New Frontier evolved from the old Frontier section of the Sundance Film Festival. Tell me about restructuring the program and what your goals were.
SF: When I started at Sundance, it was the newest program. It was experimental film and I came from experimental film programming. I was doing MIX, and at Outfest I had started the Platinum Showcase. Cooper and I worked on that, and he was really interested in bringing it to Sundance. So when they brought me here they immediately gave me the Frontier section to try to build something out of it.
So the very first New Frontier was called the Sundance Online Film Festival and it happened in 2001. There were CD ROM works, there were a couple of web series involved. Trevor [Groth] and I worked on it, and it was showcased on five computers in the basement of the Main Street mall where the digital center was, which was essentially a space that showcased the wares of our sponsors. You could test the new Panasonic camera there, and we also carved out a space for the online film festival.
But it was around 2004, right when YouTube hit and became the second largest search engine behind Google, before Google bought it, when we started to see it as an area that we need to pay attention to. That's when we started to build something beyond just the film section. We had a digital center that was starting to look dusty at that point. Sundance was the first major festival to have digital projection of work, because we were following what the artists were doing. So we put our sights on that digital center and took it over for programming.
JT: Tell me about your process of curating the program.
SF: I talk to people, I go to events, and I'm looking for work that is at the crossroads of filmmaking and art. The process is very individual; it's not an open call. It's solicitation only and I'm thinking with my programming hat on, from my experience of being at the festival and knowing who's there, what kind of work from these different areas would actually speak to a film festival audience and inspire them to think about storytelling in a different way.
JT: What kinds of projects from that arena translate best to a film festival audience?
SF: The first element is a film language. So we're not really looking for conceptual art, even though it's really interesting and can actually thrill some audiences. It's important to build a show that all film festival audiences can come in and understand. There should be a kind of seamless experience, going from the theater to seeing something at New Frontier. There's a link there, but then you should also feel pushed to reconsider that the moving image can be used in a different way - The story can be nonlinear. The story can actually follow me around in my phone and find me, or I can find it in different corners of the festival. But I think what's essential is that cinematic language, a storytelling language that feels related to what's happening in the theaters.
JT: How do you see that in the context of where filmmaking is headed? Do you see transmedia as something that will always live alongside the typical theater-going experience, or do you ultimately see transmedia displacing that in some way?
SF: All of the above. I think that it will enrich the landscape, and in some ways upstage certain elements, and in some ways remain a niche. It's happening in movements to a film industry that's also rapidly evolving in different ways. Our film industry looks completely different now than it did in a few years ago. And so the rise of this expanded mode of cinematic storytelling has been making various propositions within the cracks of how this industry broke open and bifurcated. Where there used to be all this funding and support for independent film, it looks totally different now.
Whereas Hollywood films have gotten bigger fewer and more event-driven, that's not really the pool that we're playing in. With independent film it's very different. So the question that you're asking was being asked in 2009, but in 2010 people started to come looking for answers.
JT: Where are some of the areas that you see New Frontier projects breaking across to have greater impact, beyond just the exposure of the festival?
SF: I think of a device like the Oculus Rift, the infrastructure of it. I've never seen anything ramp up so fast. There's not a lot of cinematic storytelling content yet, only games. But I expect that to really ramp up also, very fast, and that can change the whole game.
So it really depends. But all of this, in my mind, is the realm of New Frontier. We took a chance on Nonny de la Pena in 2012 when she brought [Oculus founder] Palmer Luckey, who was a 19-year-old intern at the time, to do these journalist stories in virtual reality. Only one person could see it at a time and it took 20 minutes. It made no practical sense then, and now it makes complete sense. Now she's at the forefront of something that's going to explode. So it's a very rich terrain that's going to develop like a garden. Some of it's going to be poppies and some of it's going to be grass that covers everything.
JT: This is a kind of storytelling that's always evolving. How do you stay on top of trends in the field, and where are you uncovering new work?
SF: I try not to think of any of this, New Frontier or film curation, as a practice of expertise. No one's an expert. We're all just out here looking at this stuff. We're talking about it and we're hoping to build a slate of programs that are interesting to other human beings. So it's a very subjective process, the New Frontier part.
It's people that I'm talking to in the field. There are curators that I have great ongoing conversations with, and artists recommend things. Hank Willis Thomas is always recommending fantastic films and work. There are some regular events that I go to, like the Venice Biennale, as much to see the work as to contextualize what we're doing here at Sundance and its relevance to the art world. But there also new events that crop up and I'm scrambling around trying to learn about them, some retrospectively.
And I work with a researcher. Ideally I try to find somebody who's tuned to where the field is moving. So I'm working with someone right now who's really great with new technology. A couple of years ago I was working with somebody who was great at identifying people who were working in fine art and installations. When we first started doing this, it used to feel like opening up the future. But now I feel like if I can just hold onto the whale, I'm lucky. It's dragging me, I'm not dragging it anymore. And it's exciting because it's a field that's blossoming in different areas of our festival as well.