Some Sundance Film Festival dreams are just that—pure fantasy based simply on nighttime visions of that first trip to Park City. Other artists fantasize with a foot in prior experience, an earlier Sundance visit in support of a feature, or short film, or work as a producer.
For any aspiring filmmaker, there is no set path to take to Sundance, but there are some guidelines for those looking to introduce themselves to the Sundance ecosystem, some 45K publicists, acquisition execs, reporters, actors, agents, and festival staff.
Step one, of course, is making the film that will make the cut. And there are many paths to that goal, a limitless number of stories and genres and formats that will do the trick—diversity in storytelling is the overarching theme behind the 119 feature-length films and the far-flung filmmakers representing the 2013 class of the Sundance Film Festival.
Once you’ve taken care of that detail, there is the pause for celebration. And that is one consistent Sundance pattern, one shared by filmmakers from Brooklyn to Mumbai: total, utter disbelief upon receiving word that your movie will be part of the 2013 edition of Sundance, taking place January 17-27 in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah.
Veteran TV writer and producer Liz W. Garcia, making her directing debut with The Lifeguard; screams and cries with her husband Josh Harto while their baby watches from the breakfast table. Mumbai-based filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray, unsure how Sundance programmers would respond to his doc Fire in the Blood, about pharmaceutical companies blocking antiretroviral drugs in AIDS-stricken Africa, also screams the news to his partner, who takes his call while on a boat in the Arabian Sea.
Maxim Pozdorovkin, co-director with Mike Lerner of Pussy Riot—A Punk Prayer, about the infamous Russian musicians arrested after a protest concert at a Moscow church, receives the call while driving and pulls his car to the side of the road in order to gather his composure. Eliza Hittman, returning to Sundance with her feature-directing debut It Felt Like Love, tells us she kept believing the festival programmer on the phone wanted a more polished edit of her micro-budget, coming-of-age drama and was not really accepting her movie. Cutie and the Boxer director Zachary Heinzerling, convinced his documentary about boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his artist wife Noriko was too offbeat for Sundance, blanks out the congratulatory call and jumps, jumps, jumps throughout his Williamsburg, Brooklyn apartment.
Then, once all the jumping and celebrating has stopped, Heinzerling and his Sundance peers realize that getting accepted is just the start of a frantic rush to finish one’s movie before Jan. 17 and be as ready as possible.
Your first thought: I’m already a success by making the festival cut. Your second thought: What can I do to fully capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime moment?
"A lot of the talk is about positioning your film and making sure the right people see it," Heinzerling tells us during a recent break from finishing post-production on Cutie and the Boxer. "My priority is to finish the film, to be honest, and to make sure it plays perfectly. My anxieties lie with hoping the projector doesn’t break or the speakers don’t sound crappy. I keep thinking back to the screenings themselves and hoping the audiences react well and people like the movie. This is the first time the film will be seen publicly and that’s a huge thing for someone who’s spent five years creating something."
Garcia has heard plenty of classic Sundance stories involving frigid temperatures, steady snowfall, and icy sidewalks and jokes about a woman’s main concern: being cold.
Hittman jokes about missed shuttle buses, the dream of disobeying one’s hired publicist and sales rep and sleeping in late after all-night parties, dressing "Sundance" casual in jeans and sweaters even for a red carpet premiere, and the need to carry food at all times because, well, you probably won’t have time to sit down and eat.
Keri Putnam, Executive Director of the Sundance Institute since 2010, wants one thing to be clear to the 2013 class of incoming filmmakers. Sundance is meant to be fun and filled with camaraderie over screenings and drinks. It’s meant to be a communal event, although the dramatic and documentary competition sections and their jury prizes also make Sundance a highly competitive place.
Inevitably, filmmakers focus on the marketplace, guesswork whether this year’s festival will be robust or mild when it comes to sales, and track the daily acquisition news like a financial analyst watching the stock market.
Putnam’s advice is to don’t fall into the trap that the only badge of Sundance success is a big acquisition payday from a specialty distributor. Today, there are a variety of paths towards Sundance success thanks to new technology and platforms for storytelling.
"If you want to get distribution there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy anymore," Putnam tells us, still sipping champagne from the Sundance Institute’s holiday office party. "Some independent filmmakers realize they can actually do better by keeping their rights and being entrepreneurs and working with new partnerships. Some of them want that big sale. So I think it’s about keeping your options open and listening to your own voice."
Putnam talks about the ready acclaim that comes with receiving a Sundance Festival slot and the benefits for a filmmaker that joins the Sundance family. She also understands there’s no escaping festival gossip and crowded Main Street venues that are one part discotheque (home to late-night parties), two parts product placement brand house with corporate-sponsored interview rooms. The guesswork involving closing-night awards converges with the inevitable desire for the buzz of critical acclaim, audience enthusiasm, and the big bounce that comes with camera crews, paparazzi, and the press crowning you the "It" movie, that hard-to-predict Beasts of the Southern Wild-like hotness.
Of course, for every Beasts, Little Miss Sunshine, The Brothers McMullen and The Usual Suspects, there are infamous missteps like Hounddog, starring Dakota Fanning in her first serious role.
"There can be such a focus on sales and what films get picked up and how much for and awards, especially in you’re in competition," says Greg Barker, who competed in Sundance with his documentary Sergio, served as a festival juror, and returns with one of the one of most anticipated movies of Sundance 2013, his documentary Manhunt, a behind-the-scenes look at the hunt for Osama bin Laden. "Of course, it’s great to sell a film but the experience is the festival. It’s the films. It’s the other filmmakers. It’s the audiences. It’s all these people coming together in this mountain air and having this intense collective experience all around film. It’s the best place in the world to be."
Back to the New Year’s deadlines of finishing post work on their movies, returning to sound studies and friends’ editing suites and their own home work stations, the 2013 Sundance class all have a role to play at the one single event in American cultural life that acts as the forecaster of what’s to come for the rest of the year.
Each filmmaker has the chance to sprint down the aisle of the Park City Library center with their cast to the sounds of cheers, hoots, and whistles. Each filmmaker has the chance to become part of Sundance legend. Now, back to work.