SUNDANCE EXPECTATIONS: A PROGRAMMER’S PERSPECTIVE
This is my first year covering Sundance for Filmmaker Magazine, and the assignment has me thinking about things a little bit differently. As someone who has attended this festival in various capacities since 1998, I have a deep affection for the event itself, its geographic and organizational consistency and the persistence of its vision of a vital American independent filmmaking community. You’d be hard pressed to find a person who enjoys film who has never heard of Sundance; the festival’s identity is, for all intents and purposes, a brand, associated with certain types of films — low-budget American indies, socially conscious documentaries, formally engaging short films. It is Sundance’s track record, this consistency, that has allowed the festival to maintain its prodigious advantages, but the fact that the festival is programmed so well, run by very smart people not interested in fixing what isn’t broken and served by its unparalleled Institute programs has kept Sundance front and center in the national film conversation.
For a festival programmer like me, the long shadow of Sundance is a blessing and, well, a bit of a curse. There isn’t a festival sponsor alive who doesn’t have Sundance-sized expectations, there are Boards of Directors and Chambers of Commerce all over the country who have offered support to their local festivals in the hopes that their event will become “the next Sundance,” and audiences at even the most modest festivals want to see celebrities, want to catch some of the glitz and glamour that a film festival implies, in no small part because of what they perceive going on at Sundance. Most festival organizers are conscious of these expectations and do their best to temper them, but there is no question that, in the public imagination, much of what it means to be an American film festival is measured against what goes on every year in Park City, Utah.
The film-going public are not the only ones; because of Sundance’s track record as a market and the profound impact it has had in launching new talent, the independent filmmaking community also clearly reinforces the festival’s stature; over 11,000 submissions in 2012 is a staggering number of films for a program that can physically only feature about 2% of what comes through the door. Of those, how many are sold? Of those, how many are profitable? Of those, how many a huge commercial success? For filmmakers on the outside looking in, I can imagine that those numbers are daunting. And while there are other terrific opportunities at festivals to bring your film into the marketplace (SXSW, TriBeCa and the AFM come to mind immediately), the competitive nature of the film business, in all of its new digital, democratic permutations, means that getting a film made is only going to be a part of the process, perhaps the easiest part.
You would think most filmmakers could parlay a Sundance rejection into a high-profile premiere at another festival, but looking at many regional film festivals in the post-Sundance window, you will not find a ton of breakout World Premieres; you will find, instead, a large number of films that have played at Sundance populating festival programs around the country. Looking again from the point of view of a filmmaker, it would be easy to imagine some sort of consipracy or laziness on the part of festival programmers who are simply trading in the hard work done by Sundance, festivals more interested in capitalizing on the easy publicity for Sundance titles than in launching a new movie. As a film programmer, I can tell you that this is simply not true. There is no grand conspiracy; festivals remain competitive with one another and every festival in America wants to be the festival that breaks a new film. So, why do Sundance films do so well with festivals after Sundance?
1. The Sundance Labs Produce Good Movies: When you are able to select 2% of your submissions and still put on a world-class film event year after year, it is clear that you have access to the cream of the crop. Sundance has been very good at identifying very strong films and filmmakers, who they also develop through their Labs. It’s like being a baseball team with a terrific farm system; Sundance doesn’t just feature talent, it develops talent, and that development fosters a real (and deserved) loyalty among filmmakers that provides the film festival a steady stream of good movies from talented filmmakers. Attending the Labs doesn’t guarantee a festival spot, but because the Labs do such a tremendous job identifying and fostering talent, Lab filmmakers have a real advantage, one that Sundance embraces.
2. The Post-Festival Marketplace: Many of the films that find distribution after Sundance are offered to other festivals by their distributors to help build word of mouth in key markets and at key events. Distributor relationships are the backbone of most successful film festivals and we work hard to find ways to help our friends in the distribution world create value at our festivals. This is not just lip service or a trend; film festivals have grown into a vital platform for films to be seen, an important way to book screenings in markets and they will only get more important from here. If Sundance skims the cream, distributors refine that process even further, and then put marketing and talent behind their films, all of which help audiences to discover their films.
3. That Extra Push: Not every Sundance film that sells sells at Sundance. Films that do not sell at Sundance (should) have a plan in place to get their movie seen without the support of a traditional distribution partner. Film festivals provide a great way for good films that may not have gotten sold to push onward toward a sale, building buzz, awards, word of mouth across multiple events and providing data to buyers about the commercial viability of the project.
4. A Plan In Place: Filmmakers who have experienced Sundance tend to have many of the assets in place that make them easy strategic partners, which is a huge plus when considering how any film in contention for a place in a festival program can help drive audience into the theaters. This is not just a revenue issue; at my own Sarasota Film Festival, for example, we average 100 features and 80 shorts in ten days. There is no way we can effectively market every film equally and well; filmmakers with a strong festival plan can be real difference makers, and the Sundance experience often requires that filmmakers come with assets and a plan in place for getting their movie into the festival conversation, which translates very well to smaller festivals.
Sundance is the most important film festival in the country for independent film and it uses its assets to tremendous advantage. That type of organizational execution can inspire criticism when the expectations and ideas of others are not realized, but Sundance should be celebrated for being itself and playing its role with precision. As I scout and review films this year, I have no doubt that once again, Sundance will shine. As it should.