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Meet the Man Behind the Sundance Film Festival's Valued Partner, the Sloan Foundation

Festivals
by John Anderson
January 20, 2014 2:57 PM
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Doron Weber of the Sloan Foundation
Doron Weber of the Sloan Foundation

Back in 1969, when Sundance was just a gleam in Robert Redford’s eye, members of the Zambia Space Academy also had a dream -- beating America to the moon (really).

Cut to 2014 Sundance -- Ghanaian director Frances Bodomo is telling Park City all about Zambia’s misbegotten lunar mission in her short film “Afronauts.”

Cut to 2016 Sundance – why not? this is the Space Age after all – and Bodomo is back with the feature version of her Afrological adventure -- because the Sloan Foundation, always looking to mainstream science, has found a project worth supporting in Bodomo’s wacky yarn.

This is the 12th year that the Sloan Foundation has partnered with Sundance, and will again be giving out its coveted Sloan Award (and the $20,000 that goes with it) to the film that best represents science, or makes technological concepts accessible to mainstream audiences.

'I Origins'
'I Origins'

On Tuesday, the “Cosmic Crossroads” panel takes place at the intersection of science and storytelling (actually, the Filmmaker Lodge) and will include Flora Lichtman (multimedia editor, “Science Friday,” NPR), Kevin Hand (deputy chief scientist, Solar System Exploration, NASA), Jill Tarter (SETI Institute — and the model for Jodie Foster in “Contact”!), and screenwriters Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus,” “The Darkest Hour”) and Max Mayer (“Adam”). The Sloan award is to be announced after the panel. Which should make the panel very popular.

The man behind it all is Doron Weber, who started the Sloan film program and is starting to see things blossom, some of it indirectly.

“The core Sloan concept is making science mainstream,” he said. “At the beginning we were kind of out there, but this year two of the really big movies could have been Sloan movies – ‘Gravity’ and ‘Her,’ perfect examples of the kinds of stories we’re trying to support and encourage.

“It’s another indication that we’re in line with the zeitgeist. The culture is becoming more technological and people have to grapple with a lot of things they and I see that as a positive sign. But we have a long way to go.”

En route, Sloan has been both backing and honoring films that aren’t always ABOUT science, but treat the subject knowledgeably: Last year’s winner, “Computer Chess,” for instance, or 2012’s “Robot & Frank,” which had been given a Sloan grant at NYU nine years before; or Mike Cahill’s “Another Earth” in 2011 (should Cahill happen to win this year for “I Origins,” he’d become the first two-time Sloan winner).

“We’ve been around long enough that we’re seeing our own work come out the other end of the pipeline,’ Weber said.

At the Art House Convergence, which takes place in Utah every year, pre-festival, Weber said he and about 40 indie theaters made plans for a Sloan-sponsored project that will involve science-oriented film programs, but not just science films. “You could show ‘Fight Club,’ say, and a scientist would talk afterwards about the roots of aggression,” Weber said, “or the adolescent brain.” A requirement was that one of the films in a three-film program be a Sloan movie, picked from 12 years of winners at Sundance, 14 years of winners at the Hamptons festival and the dozen or so projects that Sloan has developed.

Which raises the inevitable question: Why not just stick some science in your movie, and qualify for a Sloan award?

“It’s fine with us,” Weber said, with a laugh. “Years ago, when we were starting out, Zoe Deschanel was hosting the award show and she said, ‘Hey, this is real money – filmmakers, stick a robot in your film, dudes!’

“If someone is compelled to put science in their film because of an award,” Weber said, “it’s good with us.”

As for “Afronauts,” whose director has two films in Sundance (she was assistant director on Madeleine Olnek’s comedy “The Foxy Merkins”), Weber said she was “really gifted.” By all indications, she’s also associating with the right people, and the right subjects.

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