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LGBT History: Sundance Film Festival director worked his way to the top

It was a simple layover in Salt Lake City that introduced John Cooper to the Sundance Film Festival. More than 20 years later, he’s now the director of one of the largest and most influential independent film festivals in the world.

Cooper was an independent film lover at an early age, and even sneaked into the New York Film Festival because he couldn’t afford tickets. Through mutual friends on his layover he met people involved in the Sundance Film Festival who asked him if he wanted to volunteer. He took the offer. Returning later to work in the film labs, Cooper worked his way up the ladder and went from volunteer to being in charge of the entire festival. He is the second person to hold the position, and he took over for Geoff Gilmore, who held the post for nearly two decades.

“It was really very fate-oriented,” Cooper said. “It was never really planned out, it just sort of happened.”

While not a Utah resident, Cooper spends the entire festival in the state and visits frequently.

“I love it in Utah. I love the relaxed attitude and gorgeous mountain air,” Cooper said. “And it has changed so much in the past 20 years.”

Cooper studied theater in college, but independent film was where he saw the implementation of many concepts and principles he learned about in his classes.

“I think (film) changes people’s lives. It changes people’s attitudes. When a film tells a story on screen, a story that is personal, you’re meeting different types of people as opposed to as a statistic or fact,” Cooper said. “I believe that people are changed by other people, not statistics.”

Cooper is in his third season as director of the festival and has helped introduce the world to award-winning films and other stories that are touching, humorous and powerful. Some of the films shown under his direction include Precious, Howl, Waiting for Superman and many others.

The festival has a long, storied tradition of embracing queer stories and is one of the first festivals Cooper participated in. A Long Time Companion, one of the first films to address the subject of AIDS, won the festival’s Audience Award.

The selection of queer films happens organically, Cooper said.

“The selection process is actually very simple. We look for original stories or stories that are told in an original way,” Cooper said.

He’s just begun viewing film submissions for this season, and he’s excited. This year’s films will be building off of the enormous success of last year’s festival, and the amount of submissions this year has skyrocketed.

“All I can really say is I am really optimistic and excited for this year’s festival,” Cooper said.

Seth Bracken

Seth Bracken is the editor of QSaltLake

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