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“Don’t Eat the Clam Chowder on Main Street” and Nine Other Sundance Mistakes to Avoid

In 2015, there were about 2,300 dramatic features, 1,800 documentary features and around 8000 short films submitted for Sundance for a total of 184 slots (79 for features, 45 for docs, and 60 for shorts). Getting into Sundance is an achievement in itself, but then what? How do you ride that wave and make the most of the experience for your project and also for your career? We interviewed Sundance filmmakers and industry insiders and got their honest and unfiltered opinions about how to make the most of the film business’s most anticipated festival.

Struggling to articulate what your film is about.
Talking about your film isn’t easy! You know all the aspects of it so well, from the long-form description to the inside-production stories. But unless they are a friend or someone asking for these specific anecdotes, it’s most likely that they don’t really care about the original idea for the film or how the actor got sick and nearly dropped out. Producer James Belfer (Prince Avalanche, Compliance) recommends that one should be “super concise and short. At the end of the day your description of the film will not be as good as just reading/seeing the film itself. So get good at delivering your pitch in one sentence. Have a follow-up sentence that relates to awesome attachments/unique hooks/traction after the investor reacts to your pitch.” Once you gauge interest, he says, then you can embellish or simply move on.

“Remember to also be enthusiastic and positive when talking about your project” adds Robert Warren, a film financier and former faculty member at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Practice describing your film to yourself and time it if you need to! If you’re bored while talking about it, you can be assured that the listener will be too!”

Not being prepared for the “what’s next” question.

Filmmaker Shilpi Gupta (When The Storm Came, Sundance 2004) stresses that you need to “go in with a bunch of ideas for your next projects, even if they’re not fully fleshed out. And better yet, have some that have been ‘started’ – in whatever small way possible.” Sundance is the playing and working ground for all things film, and you never know who you’ll be meeting at a party or standing in line next to, and they may end up being your next film financier. Adds Warren, “if there is interest or other investors you’ve connected with, then you must mention that!”

Hiring the wrong publicist.
Putting your team together when you’re producing your film is crucial, and it applies to the festival and distribution phase as well. At Sundance, you need to arm yourself with a publicity team that really understands what your film is about, and also has the right connections to the type of journalists and writers who’d be most interested in your subject or genre. “We had a lot of buzz around our film going into Sundance, and then we didn’t even get our first reviews until a few days after our premiere,” says one filmmaker we spoke to. “The first one wasn’t very positive and was written by someone who usually didn’t cover those type of movies, and this completely affected our sales and distribution deal.”

There are different PR strategies for films — one during festivals, which is where you want to focus on the trades, as that’s what the insiders and buyers are reading. The other is broader when your film is coming out in theaters, on demand, etc., and that is more consumer-facing. You have to really evaluate the strengths and the enthusiasm of the publicists as they could ultimately affect the life of your movie.

Rushing to make a distribution decision.
After interviewing several filmmakers, this came up quite a few times. “It was the buzz, the energy, and there was this feeling that I need to make a deal or else my film is dead in the water,” remembers one filmmaker. “I needed to validate my experience at Sundance by locking in a deal.” Most feature-length projects going to the festival will be armed with a sales agent, and within the first week, “everyone is aware of what got sold, the bidding wars, the late-night discussions, possible award winners, and everyone wants to be a part of that.” But all good decisions are made through careful evaluation, and it shouldn’t be different in this case. Spend the time connecting with possible distributors, checking out their relevant experience, the size of their team, the scope, and their proposed strategy for your film. Do not rush into making a choice if you aren’t fully committed or connected to it as yet. Take the time, even after Sundance, to weigh out your options. Your sales agent will most likely understand and also support this.

There are more distributors than ever before, with the increase in players coming from the technology and streaming space. In 2014, of the 185 films that got into Sundance, 95 got distribution deals. Not all these deals were made at the festival, so take the time to make the best decision for you, your team and your film.

Not attending the festival without a film.
Producer Sev Ohanian (Fruitvale Station, Results) says that his 
biggest Sundance mistake was thinking that he had to wait to have a film in the festival before attending. “Don’t wait for any excuse, get your butt there ASAP and enjoy and gain from the unlimited experiences available for any filmmaker or filmmaker-to-be,” he says.

Not drinking enough water.
Park City is located about 7,000 feet above sea level and it is very easy to get dehydrated in the cold, dry winter weather. The solution: Drink water! “I actually balance an alcoholic beverage with two glasses of water, and consequently I don’t end up with a hangover, and can attend screenings, panels, meetings and parties,” says a prominent producer who is one of the more ubiquitous figures on Main Street. “Also, don’t forget to bring sunblock!”

Not staying in touch after the festival.
What you do after Sundance may be more important than what you do during the festival! Gupta says, “Keep up with contacts you made, not just the ones that were overtly professional but the social ones as well — the people with whom you joked around, attended events, partied … people you were excited to see repeatedly. Those are the people with whom you’d likely want to collaborate with the most.” But you also need to “follow up on the professional ones and have an idea of what you want out of that interaction beyond just that one film.”

One of my strategies, since I don’t like giving or receiving business cards, is to email my information to the person I want to be in touch with, and then our correspondence has already begun. The issue I usually face is smartphone battery life. Producer Ryan Silbert (Holy Rollers) solves this by carrying extra battery packs or a Mophie or Cord Cocoon.

Not planning out the day.
Between the free shuttles to Uber on surge pricing, you need to really map out your schedule when it comes to going to meetings on Main Street or screenings at the bigger venues like Eccles and Prospector Square. Scott Veltri, VP of International Sales at Magnolia, says that you must get to screenings “early, even if you have a badge. The lines for the hot ticket films get long.” Also, he adds “be wary of the traffic during rush hour.  A five-minute drive to the theater can take 20.”

Not hitting the slopes.
Andrew Garland, Director/Partner at GoodEngine Media, which does exclusive content for SundanceTV at the festival, said that his “mistake was not booking enough time before and after obligations to ski and ride the bobsled at Olympic Park!” This sentiment is echoed by Veltri, who says that “the mountains are empty as all the usual snowbirds flee during the fest. With no lift lines and empty trails you can enjoy a day with powder runs all to yourself.” Director Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels, E-Team) recommends that you make the time to take a break. “Head up to Silver Lake Lodge in Deer Valley, get some food/beer/wine from the five-star cafeteria in the lodge. Try the turkey chili. Deer Valley Ski Resort is famous for their turkey chili. Go outside, eat on the deck, and then lay out on one of the beach chairs at the base of the mountain and enjoy the view.”

Eating the chowder.
Director Tanuj Chopra (Punching At The Sun) has a wonderful anecdote: “When you’re premiering your film a big film festival, it’s easy to overlook the little things. At Sundance, I remember eating at a diner on Main (it will remain unnamed) and ordering the first thing that caught my eye: clam chowder. What emerged was this watery bowl of hazy liquid with a layer of grease and chewy rubbery nuggets floating on the surface. I proceeded to eat it. An hour later I was curled up in the snow holding my stomach. My co-writer said, ‘Bro, we’re nowhere near an ocean.’ He couldn’t understand why I would order that when everyone else kept it basic with burgers and eggs. I believe it was director’s hubris gone awry. My advice at Sundance: don’t order the clam chowder on Main St. You are nowhere near an ocean. Stop and think a minute about what you really want to eat. Not everything you do needs to be special.”

For recommendations on places to eat in Park City, check out my insider-list here!

Shruti Ganguly (H., 2015; Boneshaker, 2014) is a filmmaker based in New York City. She can be reached at shruti@fictionless.com

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