Diversity is king at the Sundance Film Festival -- and queen, too.
For the first time, half of the films featured at the festival were made by women.
Festival founder Robert Redford opened the event Thursday and said "diversity is the point" of the independent film showcase, further evidenced by contributions from 32 countries and 51 first-time filmmakers this year. The chorus of voices represented at Sundance "reflects the times we're in," he said.
"What Sundance stands for is giving new voices and new filmmakers an opportunity to be seen and heard," Redford said in an interview. "We show what's there, and what comes up will usually give you an indication of changing times."
Redford, along with festival director John Cooper and Sundance Institute director Keri Putnam, opened the 11-day festival with a news conference at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah, Sundance's home since 1981.
The films featured at the festival, like all art, reflect and inspire change, Redford told reporters.
"The festival, being as diverse as it is, shows all kinds of content, and that gives the audience a chance to choose," he said. "That's not quite so available in the main marketplace."
One of the most significant changes he's noticed over his years in filmmaking is the role sex plays on screen. Several of the festival films deal with sex: "Lovelace" looks at porn star Linda Lovelace, "Interior. Leather Bar." examines the gay, S&M leather-bar scene in the early `80s, "Two Mothers" follows a pair of friends who have affairs with each other's (adult) sons, and "Kink" is about the business of bondage and discipline pornography.
"When I got into the film business in the early '60s, it was a romantic time. Sex and romance were pretty well tied together," Redford said. "Now, 40, 50 years later, we see that sexual relations have moved to a place where it doesn't feel like there's so much romance involved. ... Relations have changed, and they've changed because of changing times and because of new technology. People are texting rather than dating and all that kind of stuff.
"We just show what's there. We don't predict anything. We don't shape anything. ... We might be agents for change, but we're not shape-shifters. So there you have sexual relations and you look at how sex is treated today: It's just simply a reflection of the times we're living in and nothing more."
One conservative group isn't pleased with the sexual content and suggested the state of Utah cease its financial support of the festival. But Redford isn't worried.
"We either ignore them or remind them that it's a free country and they should maybe look at the Constitution," he said.
Meanwhile, with recent attention on gun violence and what role Hollywood might play, Redford said the conversation ought to continue, noting that President Ronald Reagan was shot at the same year the Sundance Festival began.
"Now, 30 years later, it's absolutely not only appropriate, but overdue to have a dialogue," he said.
He added that he has a question for the film industry after seeing two movie billboards in Los Angeles that prominently feature guns: "Does my industry think that guns will help sell tickets?"
One of the documentaries in competition this year, "Valentine Road," deals with the 2008 school shooting of an eighth-grader in California by a fellow classmate.
"It all the sudden has a new resonance," said Cooper, noting that the film was selected before last month's school shooting in Newtown, Conn. "We chose it because it's an amazing movie."
The festival begins in earnest Thursday night with screenings of four films. Screenings, workshops, parties and schmoozing will continue through Jan. 27. Cooper, whose staff culled the 119 festival offerings from thousands of submissions, said he can't wait for audiences to see the selections.
"I just want to get this thing started," he said. "I feel like I'm sitting on a powder keg of talent that needs to explode."