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So You Didn’t Get Into Sundance, Redux

“So you didn’t get into Sundance.”

That’s the title of a 2009 blog post I wrote for Filmmaker’s website that gets a flurry of hits each December as, yes, a lot of people don’t get into Sundance. My post was written with a tone of plucky defiance — that mixture of self-care and can-do-ism that is the stuff of so much online film advice writing these days. I started by recommending filmmakers change their headspace by going to a museum or walking in the park, and then, a week or two later, dive back into their films by critically rewatching their edits, trying to make them better, and then to formulate festival “Plan B” strategies and even consider self-distribution.

I still stand by all of that, but over the years I’ve been wanting to rewrite that piece and this winter began collecting quotes for a 2018 update. Something has felt increasingly off about this post, written before the streaming era and crowded digital marketplace, and I find that pluckily defiant tone jarring amid so much business change. As producer Rebecca Green diagnosed, “When I read that piece, my worry is that you are trying to make filmmakers feel better, but at the same time you’re saying, ‘What’s wrong with your film?’”

The implicit posing of that latter question points to the original piece’s real problem — the supposition that if filmmakers just had done one thing better, they might have gotten into Sundance. That’s belied, as Green points out, by the Sundance acceptance ratio. In 2018, 110 feature-length films were selected from 3,901 submissions — not quite 3%. “Look at the numbers,” says Green. “What I tell emerging filmmakers applying to Sundance is to just assume you are not getting in because, statistically speaking, no one is getting in. The number of people being rejected is huge.”

Filmmakers wanting solace after their Sundance rejection typically find much company among their colleagues. When I posted on my personal Facebook page the link to the old article, plenty of directors were willing to talk about their own festival rejections. In an email, Nick Case —  a producer of Sundance films (Christine, Wild Tigers I Have Known), as well as quite a few that haven’t been accepted — echoes the thrust of my piece: “It’s important to understand that Sundance isn’t the end of the road for your film. Don’t take it personally, and keep working hard. If you’ve been rejected, think about those odds. Good films are rejected every year.”

One filmmaker, a former 25 New Face who asked to remain anonymous, is less sanguine: “In general, I think of myself as a moderate success story among the folks who have been repeatedly included on the ‘look for these films at Sundance’ lists but have always received the Sundance ‘thank you again for sharing your project with us, we wish you the best of luck’ rejection letter. As such, I have taken solace in and appreciate your previous column about rejection from the festival. However, I can safely state that not getting in has in the past and likely will in the future limit my options but by no means make this an impossible career to follow.”

That filmmaker goes on to cite those escalating submission numbers, pointing out that all of those rejected films are sloshing around in the marketplace alongside Park City titles. “Relying on a film just finding another strong premiere doesn’t work as well as it once did,” he writes, “because you are now going to be competing with the films that just played Sundance — especially if your film is a short —the whole rest of the calendar because other festivals have become increasingly OK with playing films that already premiered at Sundance.” (This point is particularly vexing — the number of regional festivals who play few premieres and recycle the competitions of larger fests.)

“To be brutally honest, [Sundance rejections] have made the business side of my career tougher,” the filmmaker continues. “I had one teaching job offer that I did not get because (and they actually said this to me) it was contingent on my film getting into Sundance, and three separate agents canceled my interview meetings with them when I did not get in.”

But an article salving the spirits of those who didn’t get into Sundance or any other A-list festival — or one sharing commiserations and woes — wouldn’t be much more than a nice thing to have on our website if there wasn’t another related issue worth discussing: the difficulty films rejected from the major festivals face in getting distribution. The very real issue of not getting into one festival, Sundance, is ultimately a proxy for the larger existential issue facing independent film in general: the absence of a viable, self-sustaining marketplace for finished films. Some may blame Sundance for this larger problem, but I don’t. (And, for the record, as a producer I’ve had films both accepted and rejected.) While the first question I asked in my original piece was, “Was your film ready to go to Sundance?”, the lack of a vibrant marketplace able to create competitive bidding outside the A-list festival circuit for anything but star-driven pictures makes a submission to Sundance a business necessity — even if the cut isn’t quite there. Says Green, “As a producer, you can’t not submit to Sundance. It’s kind of the only place that people are buying movies in a way that investors can recoup, and that’s the biggest problem with our system right now. There are just not a lot of opportunities to [sell a finished film] for a decent MG, which is why so many filmmakers are making films for under $200,000.”

Green has produced a number of successful films that had prestigious festival launches. It Follows, sold to A24, premiered at Cannes, and I’ll See You in My Dreams, which Bleecker Street bought, premiered at Sundance. But she’s faced rejection too. Vincent Grashaw’s dark teen drama And Then I Go “didn’t get in,” she says, “and that was challenging. As soon as you don’t get into Sundance, you have an entire team of disappointed people — not just your director but your financiers. And you as a producer are disappointed, too — you’re an artist as well. You think, I have $1 million to recoup — how do I do it?”

Continues Green about And Then I Go, “We did go back to the drawing board. We weren’t completely finished, although I don’t think anyone is when they submit. We shot a few new moments and scenes. And we premiered at the LA Film Festival, where we got 80% of the distributors in seats for screenings, which is tremendous.”

With Sundance chances so statistically tough, Green says filmmakers, especially narrative ones, have to be looking at Toronto, Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca all at the same time. In other words, don’t lose a year by betting it all on a Sundance acceptance.

Noah Cowan is executive director of the SFFILM, which, in addition to mounting the San Francisco International Film Festival, is, he says, “the largest narrative granting body in the United States, and one with a significant residency.” A number of SFFILM-supported projects are submitted to Sundance annually, and “we get our share of joy and pain around that time of year,” he says. To those who don’t get in, Cowan says, “we tell them to take a look at their films again, but we encourage people not to wait too long. The business cycle runs so quickly now that being in a festival soon after Sundance makes sense. That’s why we created our Launch program, which spotlights five or six exceptional films that may not have gotten into Sundance.” Films from last year’s program — Leaning into the Wind, Cage Fight and People You May Know — all sold to distributors.

And while many films do require the high-profile launch a top festival can provide, there are many independent filmmakers whose films can find success in lesser-known fests. Jeremy Carr shot his 2015 IFP-supported debut feature Other Madnesses over a six-year span, and the entire film took more than a decade to complete. “We had high hopes of getting into Sundance,” he wrote in an e-mail, “… but in hindsight I should have probably waited another year before submitting. The film had not been fully scored and mixed, and it was lacking so many final touches. I guess after so many years of struggling to make the film, my patience had just reached its limit.”

He continues, “After the rejection came, we continued to submit to festivals, and ultimately decided to take a chance on premiering at a small festival called First Time Fest in NYC. This proved to be a major success for us, as our lead actor won an award and the film was favorably reviewed in The Hollywood Reporter. Other Madnesses was picked up this year by Gravitas and is now available on VOD and streaming platforms nationwide.”

Similarly, shares writer/director A. D. Calvo, “I’ve submitted six features to Sundance and have never gotten in — I’ll admit, they weren’t all great, but my last two I believe were worthy. The Missing Girl wound up getting into Toronto. Then, I gave Sundance early eyes on Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl, but they couldn’t get me an early decision in August, and I felt like I couldn’t take the chance and pass up a Fantastic Fest bird-in-the-hand offer.” Sweet, Sweet Lonely Girl wound up premiering at the Austin festival and is now distributed by Shudder.

After 44 Pages, a documentary about Highlights magazine directed by Tony Shaff and produced by Green and Lauren D. Smith didn’t get into Sundance, the filmmakers accepted a SXSW EDU invitation and went on a festival journey of nearly two dozen stops. Green says, “I thought there would be some offers on the table given the Highlights brand,” but the 44 Pages team decide to embark on a DIY approach. “The film cost less than $200,000, and we went into it thinking that we could do this on our own.” Green and Smith hired a team that included outreach specialists and distributed the film to 12 cities from August to December, 2017. The film is still playing non-theatrical dates and has educational distribution through Passion River Films. “Self-distribution needs to be taken more seriously,” she says. “The average moviegoer doesn’t know what was bought out of Sundance, doesn’t read the trade reviews. Why is so much weight put on one festival? I’m not sure why distributors are so reliant on that stamp of approval.”

For Green, DIY is something to be contemplated from the beginning and certainly while a film is being submitted to festivals. “The only real answer to all of this is to submit to Sundance but assume you are not getting in. Know that early on. When you are submitting to festivals and already working on a plan to get a film out into the world, those rejections don’t hurt as much.”

She concludes, “My goal now is to make a film whose sale is not reliant on the festival circuit.”

Indeed, others echo Green’s advice and suggest a wholesale recalibration of expectations. Our anonymous filmmaker urges directors to be inspired by a Sundance rejection to keep honing their craft, to find joy in their work, and to keep applying with stronger and stronger films. Many of the filmmakers who responded to me spoke of the need for filmmakers to be part of building a vibrant festival circuit by committing energies, and their movies, to regional festivals. And Cowan, finally, advises that it is indeed a new world. “Even the winners today aren’t really winning in the way that we used to describe it. There are festivals that can provide great exposure, award money to continue your career, and can create the climate for you to find new investors. Careers are sustainable even as the theatrical model may not be the right way to go for most films.”

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