The only time Louie Psihoyos got to watch more than a handful of films at the Sundance Film Festival was when organizers essentially forced him to.
“It was when I was a judge a couple years ago, and I saw something like 18 films,” said the 60-year-old director, who formerly lived in Boulder and won an Oscar for his 2009 documentary “The Cove,” which graphically portrayed dolphin-hunting practices in Japan. “You go to Sundance with that intention, but the truth is that you get kind of swept up in bidding, or talking to colleagues, or your current project.”
For Psihoyos, that would be his new documentary, “The Game Changers,” which premieres on Jan. 19 at the 34th celebration of independent cinema in Park City, Utah. With more than 71,600 attendees last year, Sundance is gearing up to screen another 110 films from 29 countries through Jan. 28.
But there are no significant Colorado entries this year, according to both Sundance and Donald Zuckerman, Colorado’s film commissioner who oversees state-sponsored film incentives in the Governor’s Office of Economic Development & International Trade.
That’s down from three documentary features in 2017 — the well-received, and occasionally Netflix-bound, “Chasing Coral,” “Casting JonBenét” and “78/52.” But it also means “The Game Changers” is arguably the most Colorado-related film at the event, given that Psihoyos, a former National Geographic photographer, lived in Boulder for several years as the city was developing its international reputation as a cradle of documentary excellence.
“We used to say living in Boulder conveniently located us between two oceans,” Psihoyos said. “But when we were mixing sound a couple of years ago for (2015’s) ‘Racing Extinction’ at Skywalker Ranch, we thought, ‘Why not move the Oceanographic Preservation Society here?’ And now I literally live on San Francisco Bay in a houseboat built in 1879.”
Psihoyos’ longtime and passionate environmental activism finds a new footing in “The Game Changers” and its unique pitch on veganism.
Executive produced by James Cameron and Suzy Amis Cameron, “The Game Changers” follows Ultimate Fighter James Wilks from boxing gyms to hiking trails to the bushlands of Zimbabwe on his quest for the perfect athletic diet. A canny mix of science, sport and personal drama propels him forward while others — including world record-holding strongman Patrik Baboumian, Boulder ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, Olympian Kendrick Farris and heavyweight boxer Bryant Jennings — make their case.
“It’s not an animal rights film, because we barely mention it,” Psihoyos said. “The closest we ever get is with this guy who runs an international anti-poaching organization. But we’re not trying to make people feel bad.”
As “The Cove” proved, Psihoyas has a knack for weaving deadly serious subjects into compelling narratives.
“If you want to impact climate change, the oceans and people’s health, and save endangered species, the best way to do it is through what people eat,” Psihoyos said. “Animals are the most unsustainable thing we probably do as a species. But you have to do it in an entertaining way and make it an easy sell.”
Sundance is known for premiering such documentaries, although it’s never a matter of promoting activism over art, said festival director John Cooper.
“As is the case every year, we don’t seek out specific topics or themes,” Cooper wrote via email, noting that Sundance is the alternative to “the noise dominating the artistic mainstream. … We choose what we feel is the boldest and most exciting new independent film. The program, therefore, reflects what the filmmakers are responding to, both personally and culturally. And we’re thrilled to be hosting the world premiere of ‘The Game Changers.’ “
Psihoyos is girding — hopefully — for the critical, audience and industry reactions to his new film, which does not yet have a general release date. Whatever they are, he promises he won’t be focusing solely on the hype.
“To tell you the truth, when we were at Sundance with ‘The Cove,’ I had no idea there was even a competition,” he said. “I paid for anybody in the crew to come to Sundance but I didn’t know it was so expensive to be there, so I ended up spending $50,000 of my own money for housing. And once it screened I said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here.’
“Then somebody asked me to stick around and I said, ‘What do you mean? I thought getting in the was the award?’ ”