The day after the Sundance Film Festival announced its 2010 slate, festival director John Cooper seemed unfazed by the white-hot attention focused on the festival—and him specifically.

His predecessor, Geoffrey Gilmore, helmed Sundance for 19 years and oversaw the transformation of the festival from a small-but-respected showcase for independent moviemaking to the gold standard for film festivals and an epicenter of film culture. Now, with the unveiling of this year’s lineup, major newspapers, trade magazines and all manner of blogs are obsessively picking over the film choices, using it as a Rosetta Stone to unlock the secrets of Cooper’s stewardship.

“Everybody wants to know, ‘What’s new?’ I’m old,” Cooper jokes. “I’m the old and the new.”

Cooper has a 20-year history with Sundance. After leaving an acting career in New York, he volunteered with the Sundance Institute in 1989 and eventually advanced into the position of director of programming. In that role, he began the festival’s short film program, organized festival events and began molding Sundance into a tech-savvy organization by forging distribution partnerships with iTunes, Netflix and Xbox 360. He was also Gilmore’s right-hand man and as integral to Sundance’s growth as his predecessor.

This experience steeled him against the nerves and stress that might wrack other first-time festival directors. He’s playful, confident and assured, openly confronting the negative perceptions of the festival as a Hollywood-heavy celebrity wonderland and planning changes aimed at the event’s content, structure and attitude.

“Everybody wants to talk about Sundance as a place to buy and sell films and see celebrities or whatever,” Cooper says. “But what it really is is a community—and you’re forging it every year as a gathering place. I wanted to make sure there was room for different kinds of filmmakers at the table.”

As Sundance expanded and its status as a marketplace grew, low-budget moviemakers whose films once formed Sundance’s programming backbone, found they had fewer seats at that table. Cooper, as lead programmer, recognized that films that would have made it into Sundance 10 years ago no longer had a place in the festival. He wondered whether it was a result of Sundance’s natural growth or a reflection that it was out of step with the moviemaking community.

Whatever the reason, Cooper knew he had to respond. He did so by creating the “Next” program (see pg. 36), a slate of eight low-budget films ($500,000 or less) that will debut at the 2010 festival, which runs January 21-31.

“We have to be responsive to what our filmmaking community is doing,” says Cooper. “I felt there was such a surge happening right now that we had to carve out a section and hold on to it. You have to say, ‘No, this is theirs and we’re not letting it be something else.’”

In programming these films, a particular emphasis was placed on how much mileage these moviemakers got out of their raw talent. Flaws are a given when working with micro-budgets, but “Next” is aimed at those films that overcome what Cooper calls their “scrappiness.”

“I have a weird thing about fairness in the world,” says Cooper. “I want to make sure that if somebody does good work, that they can make it here. We need the most talented people in independent film. If those talented people can get into the community, they’re going to make it better.”

Inclusiveness seems to be the theme of Cooper’s first year as director. In addition to “Next,” he is eliminating the traditional—and exclusive—red carpet opening night premiere. He also created “Sundance Film Festival USA,” a program that sends eight moviemakers—and their films—from the festival to cities across the country for a day of screenings and discussion.

There are also smaller changes—like the size of names on badges and the reconsidered flow of people traffic—that Cooper admits most people won’t even notice, but that he hopes will be felt in the overall experience.

Initially, Cooper figured he would make changes after year one, but then thought, “Why wait?” With change happening all around him—from Barack Obama’s election to the current upheaval in the film industry—this was the moment for Sundance to change as well.

“I hope that we can become a little less serious and find a little more fun in all of this,” Cooper says. “If people come to the festival this year and just go, ‘I don’t know what it is, it just feels different,’ I will have succeeded… I don’t want to be over yet. We still have fight in us.” MM