UPDATED: Kicking off the 2012 Sundance Film Festival today, founder Robert Redford was cautiously optimistic about new opportunities for indies through alternative distribution channels such as video on demand. He thinks they can serve as an enhancement for the industry despite exhibitors’ misgivings about day and date strategies. “I hope they will see VOD as a good thing.” He conceded that “as an artist myself it’s hard to think of your work … reduced to a small screen. You make your work to be seen on the large screen with its subtleties, but hopefully if audiences see something on the small screen they will want to see it on the large screen.”

Redford acknowledged “the grim times we live in today,” the lingering economic malaise and “government paralysis.” In spite of that Redford touted this year’s film lineup as an example of a robust independent filmmaking community that is reflecting the times but “doing so without paralysis.” Redford said he sees a contracting mainstream movie business even while celebrated bigger-name directors are rediscovering an expanding indie film world — including filmmakers like Stephen Frears and Spike Lee, who are debuting their latest projects here this year. “They want to come because it allows for more creative freedom and there are also changes in opportunity for distribution.”

Redford later expanded on that theme, noting the studios have gone from being at the heart of the industry to a diminished role. “Artists were beholden to the rules that were placed on them with an emphasis on commerciality. Studios demanded cuts and re-edits. The advent of technology allowed for greater special effects and budgets went up. So that left the more humanistic side of cinema alone. Now there isn’t much left of that mainstream industry, which has opened up wide areas for independent film.” He said franchises dominant studios today and that has lead filmmakers like Lee to head back to independent cinema.

Sundance Institute head Keri Putnam and festival director John Cooper touted recent developments that give filmmakers the chance to take control of distribution, bypassing the traditional route of acquisition. “There’s an independent entrepreneurial spirit now,” said Putnam, who added that there are more opportunities than ever with the advance of technology, globalization and the institute’s own initiatives to give films a life even if they’re not acquired. “They may still decide to to sell it in a traditional way, but they have that flexibility now.”

Putnam was careful to emphasize that traditional distribution companies remain a backbone of Sundance and the larger indie film business. “It’s important for Sundance for these traditional distribution companies are healthy and that the acquisition market is robust.” She also cited initiatives by mini-majors to evolve their strategy, including Focus’ Focus World and the still unnamed Weinstein Company unit headed by Tom Quinn and Jason Janego as examples of change.

In the heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s, independent film and the mainstream converged. Cooper cited Fight Club (1999) as one example of a Hollywood film that co-opted an indie aesthetic at the time. “There are still films like that [today], but I feel like indie film said, ‘you can have all that, go ahead and take it,’ but still we’re going to hang onto better story.” Cooper said that story lines at Sundance are original “even beyond the flaws that may exist.” He also noted that independent filmmakers are less inclined than their predecessors or Hollywood to copy or riff on a recent success. “We didn’t see 16 Preciouses,” they’re telling new stories or similar ones in different ways.”

Cooper pointed to The Surrogate as an example of this. “It’s a guy in an iron lung who doesn’t want to be a virgin anymore — that is not your Hollywood movie.” He also noted from this year’s lineup Done with Helen Hunt and Simon Killer as something Hollywood would never touch as well as Beasts Of The Southern Wild as examples of the divergence between indie and mainstream. “Hollywood and independent film are separating more than they ever have in the past.”