Whether you’re a filmmaker in the industry or a film enthusiast, chances are you’ve heard about the importance of film festivals. While there are no clear-cut ways of breaking into the entertainment industry, film festivals have a proven track record of supporting new talent and helping them launch their careers. For most emerging filmmakers, Sundance Film Festival is a rite of passage into making a name for themselves in the world of entertainment. Let’s get a deeper understanding as to what Sundance is all about, what festival programmers are looking for when selecting films, and how to better navigate the film festival circuit.
The Champion of Independent Filmmakers and Films
Sundance is one of the most prestigious non-profit film festivals in the world founded by the brilliant and iconic Robert Redford in 1981. The Sundance Institute was established primarily as a platform to discover fresh talent and original voices in storytelling. Every January, thousands of aspiring and veteran filmmakers from all corners of the world flock to Park City, Utah to attend the festival, watch independent films, and network with fellow artists and industry professionals.
For independent filmmakers who are trying to make a name for themselves in the industry, having their films officially selected by Sundance is a huge feat as well as a turning point that will open doors and help launch their filmmaking careers.
Sundance is a huge feat as well as a turning point that will open doors and help launch their filmmaking careers
Sundance has built credibility over the years as a premium film festival because it has brought us some of the best and brightest filmmakers and films we know and love today. Award-winning filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, Damien Chazelle, Chloe Zhao, and Ava DuVernay ― the list goes on and on ― all got their big break at the festival.
Notable films that premiered at Sundance include Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Reservoir Dogs (1992), El Mariachi (1992), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Saw (2004), Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Whiplash (2014), Manchester by The Sea (2016), Get Out (2017), Call Me by Your Name (2017), Minari (2020), and Coda (2021). Most films that are screened at the festival win awards and nominations at the prestigious Academy Awards as well as acquire distribution from Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+, Universal, A24, Neon, and Warner Bros. Pictures among others.
The Blueprint of Sundance Films
Every year, thousands of films are submitted to Sundance and only about a hundred films are selected. So, what makes a film eligible and worthy of an official selection? First of all, the festival showcases US and international narrative and documentary short and feature films, episodic content, and new frontier exhibitions and performances.
Sundance films are unique and powerful because the filmmakers behind them put the story and characters at the heart of it. Other elements such as the cinematography, structure, costumes, production design are designed to work together to enhance the story. Films that get selected have original and fresh voices, such as Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015), a film that was captivating and ingeniously captured just by using an iPhone. These stories must leave an indelible mark on the audience whether it’s just for laughs or something that evokes one to think or inspires someone to make a positive change in their lives.
For aspiring filmmakers who want to get their films on the festival circuit, here are some of the guidelines and points to keep in mind as told by Drea Clark in an interview. She has been a seasoned festival programmer for over 20 years at Slamdance, LA Film Festival, and Sundance.
The first important factor that independent filmmakers should take into consideration is having a well-crafted film festival strategy plan. A film’s premiere status is a crucial element that you need to factor in if you want to get into the big leagues because it determines your eligibility in the selection process. Most prestigious film festivals require a world premiere status, meaning that your film has never been screened to the public at another film festival or event in a particular region. Your film only has one official world premiere, so top festivals like Sundance will only consider films that haven’t had their premiere yet. If you feel that your film has the potential to fare well at huge festivals, make sure to skip the smaller ones.
After your film has premiered at a festival of your choice, your next goal should be to submit to as many film festivals as possible. Doing so will increase your chances of building an audience and exposure to potential distributors. It’s also important to be intentional in choosing the kind of festival you want to submit to because you will increase your chances of getting selected if the film fits the type of genre or narrative that these festivals are interested in. If you don’t get into Sundance, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your film is not good but rather it just wasn’t the right fit for them.
Another important element that has been a positive outcome of the #MeToo movement in the industry, most festivals are now committed to looking for diverse filmmakers and stories that have some sort of social impact on a community. If you’re a BIPOC or woman filmmaker, it is something that could get the attention of festival programmers. However, this is not to say that this is the norm. Sundance films do not limit selections to a specific topic and it is purely coincidental when certain themes or topics are present in most of the selected films.
As we all know, the entertainment industry runs on connections and networking. To increase your chances of getting into a festival, you should make meaningful connections with people who run the festivals. Filmmakers, programmers, managers, agents, and distributors are always present in these events, so knowing the right people and being part of a professional community could do wonders for your application.
Stories must leave an indelible mark on the audience whether it’s just for laughs or something that evokes one to think
When submitting to film festivals to Film Freeway, make sure to emphasize what makes you unique such as having crew members who have a particular connection to the region or place of the festival that you are submitting to. For instance, if you’re looking into Sundance, you can mention that the director is from Utah or the cinematographer went to film school there. “This can do two things — first, it creates a personal connection to your film and, second, it creates a potential built-in audience for the festival, which programmers are always looking for.”
Most first-time filmmakers, because of their eagerness to quickly launch their filmmaking career, get excited over submitting their films to A-list festivals even if their projects aren’t really ready to compete. Sometimes filmmakers rush their stories or production to make it in time for a certain festival or they simply write stories without putting much thought into it, subsequently overlooking the very essence of being a storyteller. Film festivals are held annually for a reason and it’s better to wait until you have fully developed your vision, style, and voice as a filmmaker. It’s easy to get lost in the glitz, glam, and accolades that film festivals offer, but filmmakers must always remember that focusing on telling remarkable stories is what will help you leave a mark on the world.