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How to bring your movie to Sundance

Sundance Film Festival alumni and a festival programmer immerse themselves in what it takes to be a filmmaker for the acclaimed festival.

This post was written by Meagan Keane.

The Sundance Film Festival was founded in the 1980s by legendary actor Robert Redford and is considered one of the largest and most prestigious independent film festivals in the world. Over the years, films like Paris is on fire, Precious, I’m waiting for Superman, “ and Minari have shaped the entertainment world with the coveted Grand Prize of the jury.

Many filmmakers dream of the chance to bring their art to a wider audience and experience their big breaks at Sundance. But what does it take for your film to be selected for Sundance?

Adobe, a longtime sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival, recently hosted a virtual podium for special events where this question was asked of a group of film professionals. Director Sam Feder spoke to producer Amy Scholder about her film. Disclosure, a 2020 Sundance film now available on Netflix that documents the history of transgender portrayals on film and television. Christopher Makoto Yogi shared his experiences as a director, editor and writer of I was a simple man, which debuted at Sundance in 2021. In addition, Sundance Film Festival’s feature film programmer Dilcia Barrera shared an insider’s perspective on the selection process.

Over the course of an hour, the panelists in the five-part How to get your film into Sundance: Filmmakers Panel talked about everything that inspired her to get into the film industry, to organizing ideas during a project. The discussion led to some great tips that can help any filmmaker create films for the Sundance Film Festival.

Focus on the movie.

Dilcia: A lot of people think that at Sundance we have a mysterious way of choosing movies. But honestly, it’s about the content. We look at the story and the passion, authenticity and honesty that filmmakers bring with them. Both Sam and Christopher are great examples because their two films are very personal stories that come from a place of reality but still bring incredible art to the screen.

Be true to yourself and don’t give up.

Sam: I don’t think I’m the only one who thought that if I just got into Sundance, then I made it. But I did two films and didn’t get in. And I’ve started to take it really personally. It made me doubt myself. I’ve worked a lot to realize that it can be great for your film and career, although it can be great for your film and career, but it also doesn’t affect who you are, your work, or your future. There are so many great films that don’t come to the cinema every year.

Christopher: I also had to learn to let go of these thoughts. The only thing I would focus on was do I like this movie? Am i proud of it? That’s the only goal, because when I think about what programmers at Sundance or Berlin or wherever think about my film, I start to make decisions that go against my gut. If you start hearing all of these voices you can really get off track.

Dilcia: I was a short film programmer for years. It is our largest area; We receive around 9,000 submissions a year. Some people think that with so many submissions, it really doesn’t matter whether they submit their film. But I want to say that it matters because once you submit a film to Sundance, you get into our system. We’ll start tracking your career and progress as a filmmaker, and when we see people really growing we’ll be paying closer attention to what they’re doing. Getting down to the right path for your film festival life is a good strategy.

Build a community.

Sam: I’ve learned over the years how important it is to build a team. With Disclosure, We almost had this grassroots community and relationships that Amy and I had built over 20 years. Finding people who are like-minded and share the same passion for storytelling will help you keep your feet on the ground and carry your work into the world.

Amy: I think those behind the scenes relationships made our interviews so amazing because there was so much trust in the room. We appreciated every single person on the set.

Christopher: I love the collaborative aspect of filmmaking. I love being with others. I keep showing people things and asking them to tell me what works and what doesn’t. I’m lucky to have these collaborators to ricochet off of or I’m just kind of banging my head against the wall.

Use resources.

Dilcia: The reality of the movie is that it’s not just about passion, it’s also about putting yourself in the right circumstances. I really encourage people to use whatever resources they can find, such as applying for scholarships or grants. Find people to help you when you’re ready to make a movie.

Christopher: As part of the Screenwriters Lab program, I was very grateful for the support from the Sundance Institute. You were the first to say they believed in me. They were cheerleaders, supporters, and if I needed an introduction, they could help me with that. It was still hard to sell and it took me seven years to get people to see my vision and what the film can bring to the world.

Always working.

Sam: One of the biggest pieces of advice is something I got from a college professor who said, “Always work.” I didn’t get it at first because of course I always try to work. He said that you should take a video of people’s feet yourself on the train and study what is around you. There is so much inspiration everywhere and I’ve always taken that to heart. It’s a great way to look at the world and see myself in the world.

Check out the rest How to get your film into Sundance: Filmmakers Panel and see what inspires you.

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