PARK CITY, Utah (AP) — Robert Redford kicks off the Sundance Film Festival he founded 31 years ago on Thursday afternoon at the event's original home, the 280-seat Egyptian Theatre.
A lot has changed since those humble beginnings — the event now takes over Park City and has stretched into Salt Lake City — but Redford says change is what keeps the festival relevant. Though it has long outgrown its original venue, Sundance remains true to its mission of showcasing the work of emerging artists and experimental approaches that exist outside the Hollywood mainstream.
"The festival was meant to use change to underline the word diversity, and diversity is something I think moves the ball, and that's something I think we represent," Redford said at the festival's opening-day news conference. "That comes out of change. As things change, the filmmakers here roll with it, and their films show how change is affecting the life we live and the society that we're in."
Though he always blasts the "ambush marketers" who take over the town's Main Street with gift suites, sponsored showrooms and celebrity hangouts, Redford said he's gratified by the festival's continued growth.
"When it started to happen, I wasn't prepared for it," he said. "It grew way beyond my imagination."
More than 12,000 submissions from around the globe were culled to the 118 feature-length documentary and narrative films featured during the 10-day event this year.
"We're really seeing a lift in the quality (of independent film)," said festival director John Cooper. "I think the wild ride of the festival is going to be felt by the audiences."
Redford himself is featured in a film premiering Friday, "A Walk in the Woods."
"That was not my idea," he said, adding that he has not been involved in film selection for the festival since its inception, for fear of appearing self-promotional.
"And I also said at that time, just to make sure, I don't ever think that anything I do should be in the festival. I think that would be self-interested and I don't want to do that," Redford said. "So we all agreed on it, until recently. John went out of bounds."
Other highlights at the festival include Redford's appearance alongside George Lucas at a Power of Story panel set to stream live on the Sundance website, and James Franco, in his first appearances since "The Interview"-Sony hack scandal, has three films in Park City — two at Sundance and one at the concurrent, even-more-indie festival, Slamdance. Funny folks Jack Black and Sarah Silverman take dramatic turns in feature films, Bobcat Goldthwait premieres a documentary about comic Barry Crimmins, and comedian Tig Notaro stars in her own documentary, "Tig."
Other starry offerings include: "Z for Zachariah," in which Margot Robbie believes she's the last woman on Earth, until she discovers Chris Pine and Chiwetel Ejiofor; "Sleeping With Other People," starring Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie; the gambling drama "Mississippi Grind," starring Ryan Reynolds, Alison Brie and Alfre Woodard; "Lila & Eve" with Jennifer Lopez and Viola Davis; "Slow West" with Michael Fassbender; and the closing-night film, "Grandma," starring Lily Tomlin.
The Sundance Film Festival continues through Feb. 1.
AP Entertainment Writer Sandy Cohen is tweeting from Sundance at http://twitter.com/APSandy .