"I always thought when I started this thing, because it was new, that it would only last 10 years if it succeeded," Redford said last week from his Sundance home. "After 10 years, it becomes more conservative, it becomes afraid of risk. Suddenly you have a success, suddenly you raise some money, and you want to protect the money you're raising. . . . And unless you are willing to risk stepping into some new territory with your mission, then I see no point in continuing."
But the Sundance Institute has continued to encourage filmmaking outside the Hollywood formulas. And as the most visible part of Redford's empire, the Sundance Film Festival, kicks off Thursday night in Park City, the actor-director-activist says he's excited that "we maintain our mission that we started 25 years ago."
Redford touted the fact that 51 of the 124 feature films in the festival are by first-time directors, and many of the movies reflect Redford's mandate to Sundance's programmers to push the envelope.
"I got concerned a few years ago that we were feeling a little too mainstream," Redford said, citing a recent opening-night film that featured big stars and had a distributor in place. "I said, It feels like we're moving off the track here. Let's have a documentary [on opening night]. Let's get back to who we are.' "
Redford also wants documentaries to take risks, away from the safety of talking heads and dry history. "I put a keen eye on the documentaries to see if they're moving in the direction that I sensed they were moving in maybe 15 or 20 years ago, that they were going to get closer and closer to [narrative] film, in terms of style," Redford said.
In both documentaries and dramatic films, Redford sees this year's movies bucking the stereotype of independent films being bleak and humorless.
"The pendulum swings. You go all the way out to the edge of something and then it's going to swing back," Redford said. "The comedy and humor and satire will be very strong this year. All that is a reaction to the world we're living in. . . . There'll be the dark stuff, there'll be the extreme. But I think when you look at it altogether, there's a little bit more hopefulness in terms of the human condition."
And if last year's films - like the documentaries "Chicago 10," about the anti-war protests of the '60s, or "No End in Sight," an indictment of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war - were overtly political, Redford thinks that trend "has played itself out."
Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore shared that appraisal when the Sundance slate was announced.
"There's a lot of work that I really believe is a reflection of the darkness in the social milieu right now, the kind of troublesome qualities of what's going on in the world," he said in December. "But I don't want to say people are trying to address a social solution. I think they are talking about a personal solution, a way to survive, a way to keep going day to day."
As for addressing issues like Iraq directly, Redford said, "there were such an overabundance of films in that territory, that I don't think that filmmakers want to go there right now."
Last year, audiences indicated they didn't want to go there, either. A glut of movies dealing with Iraq or the "War on Terror" - such as "In the Valley of Elah" and "Rendition" - boasted big stars and big ideas, but came up short at the box office.
"Lions for Lambs," which Redford directed and starred in, was a victim of that glut. The movie told three interlocking stories, of an ambitious Republican senator (Tom Cruise) tipping a jaded reporter (Meryl Streep) about a new military strategy in Afghanistan, of two soldiers (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) fighting in Afghanistan at that moment, and of a professor (Redford) trying to instill some idealism in his star pupil (Andrew Garfield). But the film, released in November, fared poorly with critics and made less than $15 million at the box office.
"I made the film I wanted to make - I don't back away from that," Redford said. He does find fault, though, with the decision by Cruise's United Artists to release the movie amid so many other similar films - and open it worldwide with gala premieres and all the trappings.
"It's a small movie," Redford said. "I said, hey, no red carpet. Well, Tom likes the red carpet. They felt that by making it a splash, it would get the attention over the other films. I felt the opposite would be true. . . . I said, Are you guys crazy? Why can't you go back to the platform release? . . . Let an audience find it.' "
Redford has succeeded before in sending a political message through popular entertainment - notably in a stellar run of '70s hits including the campaign drama "The Candidate," the CIA thriller "Three Days of the Condor" and the Watergate saga "All the President's Men' - and the box-office failure of "Lions for Lambs" isn't going to stop him from doing it again. Among the projects Redford has in the works include a drama about the Weather Underground and an adaptation of Against All Enemies, the post-9/11 memoir of Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism expert in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
And while he develops those films, Redford looks toward the future of his Sundance Institute.
"Where are we going next? What is the next step for Sundance? And it had better be a step," he said. "What's been exciting this year is, I think, everyone realizes that now we are at a point where we have to move into a second big step. In other words, a big idea. And my role is to be in that shepherding role."