Ten True Things About John Cooper
MY PITHY SALUTE ON THE EVE OF HIS SUNDANCE FINALE
- He’s one of the last, true people-persons in the business. Whether you’re an intern, or a young filmmaker making your debut, or Ryan Gosling — he’ll treat you with kindness, honesty, and always root for your success. He’s a champion of others, not himself, and that’s a rare and beautiful thing.
2) You almost never forget the time you spend around him. He can change your whole outlook on something in just a few minutes. I loved when he’d pop into my office for no reason, and then give feedback on something you were working on, or struggling with, and you’d be on a new path because of his presence and his ideas.
3) Cooper doesn’t believe work is everything, he thinks it’s part of the thing. As Lips from Anvil! famously said, “family’s important shit man.” He treats his staff and volunteers like a tribe, and he managed to raise an amazing family of his own, all while being one of the busiest people I’ve ever known.
4) It’s maddening how stylish and good looking he is, and what great taste he has in footwear and fashion … and what poor decisions he makes with pick-up trucks he drives.
5) He has phenomenal timing. Right before each festival, hundreds of people are putting in insane hours, and getting ready for the crazy show. It always happened that right when people seemed on the edge of burning out, there would come a midnight or early morning email from Cooper — who always saw everyone’s hard work, always knew what people were doing and up against, and he’d bring it all back down to earth and remind us it was going to be okay, and maybe even fun, and he’d cheer everyone on. He was always the head coach on the field, never up in the owners box.
6) He’s outwardly fearless, and that courage and conviction created true newness, things that never existed before, and he pulls old ways into the future effortlessly. Cooper understood the Long Tail before it was called that, and his cardinal rule was it takes three times trying something before you ever even knew what you got. He teaches you patience and gives you the right to fail, if it means taking chances.
7) He’s a freaky creative problem solver. At our first office working together, where four to five people would work in the same room because we had so little space, we hired a carpenter to come in and build some shelves to hold the thousands of VHS tapes and DVDs that came in huge mail bags each programming season. The guy measured everything out and told us how many tapes we’d be able to store and it wasn’t nearly enough. I told Cooper the bad news and he walked in, looked at the plans, and tilted a VHS tape on it’s side so it would sit differently and said — “try that.” In a couple seconds, he had doubled our capacity and solved the problem — that kind of weird instinctual mojo happens all the time with him.
8) He’s never afraid of anything changing or the world pushing new things on him. He’s an adventurer, willing to figure it out, able to see the possibilities, and he can bring people on that journey with him — which is part of why I think the Film Festival has been so dynamic under his leadership. From believing in and pushing New Frontier, to online distribution, to Sundance USA, to NEXT and NEXT Fest to London and Hong Kong and the Art House Convergence — all these ideas and projects and more have flowed through Cooper. And it’s a truly remarkable legacy and I’m so glad it will continue.
9) True inspiration is being around someone who not only challenges you to do your best, but enables you to do it. I always thought of Cooper as the proverbial Dad pushing you on your first solo bike ride without training wheels. His magic formula was one part tenderness, one part call to arms, and one part toughness if you fell over and started feeling sorry for yourself. It’s his trust in you that gives you the wind you need to do big things.
10) It had to be fate or destiny that took Cooper from being a volunteer at the Sundance Institute to becoming the Director of the Film Festival and steering the organization on so many levels. He has always been a leader of great processes, and he fills them with integrity and purpose and shared vision. He’s always seen the festival as a whole, and thinks of how everything and everyone fits together within it. From the biggest things to the smallest details — and everyone “on the mountain” will get to feel it one last time.
Congratulations (and heartfelt thanks) Cooper on all that you’ve accomplished, all the people and artists and audiences you’ve touched, and all the wondrous things yet to come. You made it all so damn fun and unforgettable.