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Toolkit | Meet the Sundance Film Festival Programmers (In their Own Words)

Toolkit | Meet the Sundance Film Festival Programmers (In their Own Words)

In the first of what will be a series of articles in indieWIRE’s new Filmmaker Toolkit section, indieWIRE explores the Sundance Film Festival today. This new Toolkit section of iW aims to aid filmmakers in a host of areas related to filmmaking, including profiles of large parts of the film industry, covering areas such as distribution, film festivals, sales agents, the filmmaking process and more. This area will continue to evolve and it is iW’s hope it will become a valuable and useful asset for filmmakers and others. Today, Sundance is the focus and iW will be doing similar articles showcasing a few other leading fests in the U.S. and beyond.

Timed to the looming series of deadlines for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the festival’s programmers offer their insights on how they create and re-create their yearly event. The festival seeks, according to its mission statement, to “discover, support, and inspire independent film and theatre artists from the United States and around the world, and to introduce audiences to their new work.” For all of the frenzy, anticipation, glitz and the ups and downs associated with the annual January event, Sundance remains at the pinnacle of America’s film events. Independent filmmakers routinely time their production schedules to meet Sundance’s deadlines, and for good reason. Yet, as some of the festival programmers here will say, it’s not the only game in town and other events can be great launching pads as well.

Sundance’s director John Cooper, Tevor Groth, director of programming as well as senior programmers Shari Frilot, Caroline Libresco, David Courier, John Nein and programmers Todd Luoto and Kim Yutani were each given a series of questions from indieWIRE asking about their road to becoming a part of Sundance, in addition to their views on how they see Sundance’s place in the broader festival world, not to mention questions about practical advice. Though longtime attendees may not be surprised by some responses, others may be somewhat surprised to hear that a number of programmers said there is no such thing as, “a Sundance film.” Nearly everyone said they’re looking for films that are presented in a creative or revolutionary way with a new voice – be it from a newcomer or a filmmaking veteran.

One programmer said that what he’s looking for is a film that makes him scream, “Yes, this is why I do this job, this is why I put in these incredibly long hours.” Still others get down to pragmatics, discussing DVD quality when submitting to the festival, the importance (or lack thereof) of press kits and a film’s state of readiness.

Like all festivals, Sundance is evolving and it is actively evaluating the state of the moving image. New Frontier and its inaugural partnership last year with YouTube are obvious manifestations of the festival’s challenge to stay at the forefront of the film landscape. Its Sundance USA program also takes Sundance premieres to other areas of America only days (or even hours) after their debuts in Park City, UT.

[For those planning to submit to Sundance for its 2011 event taking place January 20 – 30, all deadlines are listed at the end of this article. Also, check out the round up of indieWIRE’s 2010 Sundance Film Festival coverage]

John Cooper, Director

Cooper on his personal and professional background

I have been with the Sundance Institute in various capacities for 20 years. I came from a theater background. I began as a theater design student but segued into performance and directing. Finding Sundance was both fate and fluke. I met staffers in Utah while on a stopover flight returning to New York in 1989 and was enticed into volunteering at the summer directing lab. I was offered a staff job the next year and began working on the festival as well. Then director Tony Safford and programmer Alberto Garcia gave me a box of short films to see if I could put together a program out of them. … I did. I grew from there.

Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

And on the importance of Sundance…

I think it is because of the support we have given filmmakers not just at the festival but in our other programs as well. Having an authentic legacy helps tremendously. I think we are crucial because we continue to hold to the original ideals of discovery and support. Not to mention “discovery” is hard work … and we put in the time and energy every year. We have built a solid structure over the years to find new films, support the press and industry and engage audiences to provide the best platform we can.

How film festivals and Sundance are changing:

Expanding our reach to better serve “independent film” – meaning original storytellers that have chosen film as a medium of choice. I am anxious for Sundance to play a part in any new distribution models that are appropriate.

There are many kind of festivals. I believe Sundance has grown to be important on the global stage. Even though we have strong community support from Park City and Salt Lake City we are not primarily a “community festival.” We serve the community of independent industry and filmmakers worldwide.

Advice for submitting filmmakers

First and foremost follow the submission procedure we have in place. Also all filmmakers should have a plan A and a Plan B. I would hope that filmmakers understand that we take every submission very seriously and every one has a chance to be accepted at Sundance.

Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

What Sundance programmers are looking for

Quite simple really … originality of story and originality of how the story is told (meaning style, technique and form). I have often said, keeping “open,” not narrowing my critical gaze takes constant discipline. Most people don’t find 125 features they love every year. As director, what I look for now is passion (for a film) from my staff. I push them to work hard to defend their support for any given film. Having a great diverse programming staff means every thing to me both professionally and personally.

Cooper on his favorite Sundance and non-Sundance movies of last two years:

I had a great experience watching “Up” with my daughters at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. I loved “A Single Man” for its sheer style. This is too crazy of a question for me. I like many films. I have to fight pangs of letting go of filmmakers who we supported in the early phase of their career that move on to a bigger stage.

Trevor Groth, Director of Programming

Groth on his Utah origins and his path to Sundancer…

I grew up in Salt Lake City, which is how I got involved with Sundance. I first started attending the festival when I was in high school and it was because of this that I wanted to work in film. I then went to the University of Utah and did an internship with the Sundance office in Utah. Knowing that I wanted to get into programming, I volunteered at the Sundance filmmaker labs, which is where I got to know [John] Cooper who then hired me to be the programming coordinator and to help program short films. My programming job evolved over the years into my current position as director of programming. Over the course of my employment with Sundance, I have also been the artistic director for Cinevegas as well as a consultant for numerous other festivals and film organizations.

Director of programming, Trevor Groth. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Groth’s take on Sundance’s place in the grand scheme of things…

We have remained true to Robert Redford’s original vision of providing a refuge for true artists working in film. I also feel that remaining true to our support of both American independent films and documentaries keeps us vital. While it is important for us to expand the impact and outreach of our international programming, it will never be at the cost of wavering our support for indies and docs. It is what sets us apart from the other major international film festivals and keeps us crucial.

And his thoughts on how film festivals, and Sundance, are changing

Film festivals are changing primarily in numbers. Over the last 10 years film festivals have been popping up in nearly every city all over the world. Some people feel that there are too many, but I disagree. I believe film festivals are becoming more important than ever as a way of keeping film culture alive and well on a global scale. There is no better way to cultivate lovers of non-studio film than at a film festival (as I can personally attest). As arthouses are finding it harder and harder to stay afloat, film festivals can keep the flame burning.

Some practical advice for submitting filmmakers…

Don’t get discouraged if we don’t accept the film. We get 1000s of submissions and only select around 200. As I mentioned above there are numerous other festivals who can provide a great place to launch your film. That said, I also understand how important our decisions are for the life of a film and the lives of the people who made it. Everyone who submits should know that we take every submission very seriously and give them every possible chance to be seen by the programmer who might fight for their inclusion.

Groth with some advice on what Sundance programmers are looking for…

I look for originality of vision and fresh storytelling, but there are no specific criteria for what makes a “Sundance film.” My only definition of a “Sundance film” is one that we play in the festival.

Some of Groth’s favorite films of the last two years:

Since it is too difficult to single out any of the films that we have shown I will list a few that we didn’t (in no particular order). “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “Where The Wild Things Are,” “Hunger,” “District 9,” “Dogtooth,” “Alamar,” “Treeless Mountain,” “Synecdoche, New York,” “Gommorah,” “Il Divo,” “The Hurt Locker,” “The Headless Woman,” “Silent Light,” “Observe And Report,” “Medicine For Melancholy,” “I Killed My Mother,” “Samson And Delilah,” “Mother,” “Greenberg,” “The Living Wake,” “Let The Right One In,” “The Wrestler,” “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” “Easier With Practice,” “Redland,” “The Square,” “Pineapple Express,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days.”

Sundance Film Festival programmer profiles and submission deadlines continued on the next page

Shari Frilot, Senior Programmer and curator of New Frontier

Senior programmer, Shari Frilot. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Frilot on her “slippery slope” from filmmaking to Sundance programmer…

In the early 1990s I became increasingly frustrated with how my film, “A Cosmetic Demonstration of Sexuality” was being presented by film festivals. Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard hung up their positions as the co-directors of The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival and pegged me to take over the festival. I saw it as an opportunity to re-imagine the way film festivals were designed, so I said yes and soon after the MIX festivals in New York, Mexico and Brazil were born. After five splendid years at MIX, I wanted to get back to my filmmaking and moved to Los Angeles for love. Morgan Rumpf and John Cooper (director of Outfest at the time) sniffed me out for one programming job, and as a cash-strapped girl, I couldn’t resist. Soon after, I was hired as a programmer at Sundance and thereby fell down the slippery crack of festival programming once again. I’ve been there since 1998.

And on Sundance’s place in the world…

We are nothing without the strength of our stories and the expression of our diversity. Sundance continues to play a key role in introducing fresh, new, uncommon perspectives into the larger landscape of cinematic storytelling, I think it is absolutely CRUCIAL to maintain and champion a high profile platform for independent storytelling and artistic cinematic expression. This is particularly so at a time when the moving image and cinematic narrative are becoming exponentially relevant to the evolution of our communication, our ethics and our individual and collective consciousness.

In the past, engaging with a cinematic narrative meant showing up at an appointed time and place. Now, these narratives follow us around, reaching us in multiple ways through a rapidly evolving electro-skeleton of mobile networks, electronic gadgets and surveillance technology. Because this “electro-skeleton” that is encrusting our bodies and everyday lives is increasingly purposed for commerce and security, Sundance’s mission to provide a platform for independence and artistic creativity in cinematic storytelling is more urgent and important now than ever before.

Frilot’s thoughts no how festivals are evolving…

A big role of film festivals is to keep up with and contribute to, film culture and to a certain extent, the film industry. Rapid and monumental shifts are happening right now in the film world. The distribution game is changing and involving festivals on an unprecedented level. Sundance is committed to following the filmmaker first. The evolution of our festival will be largely influenced by decisions, interests, needs and innovations made by the filmmakers and artists themselves.

The sheer will of the filmmaker will very likely play a much larger role in the production and distribution of their films. The changing hardware of exhibition and production will affect what their films look like, what form they take and even how they are defined as “films” (read: transmedia). Sundance will continue to evolve to provide the platforms filmmakers require in this ever morphing environment. This is where the Next category is coming from, as well as the development of New Frontier over the past five years. We will continue to conceive of ways to create more solid and capacious platforms for a multiplicity of cinematic expressions.

Again, it’s all about checking the DVD… Oh, and stay healthy…

At this point, you’ve already made your film, so it’s simple. Fill out the paperwork by the deadline. Make sure we can see and hear your DVD OK before you send it in. Try to make sure the DVD doesn’t get damaged in transit.

After that, find a way to keep your sleep habits healthy – keep your spirits up and remember that Sundance is not the be-all or end-all of your film’s life and success. Sundance is a crapshoot. The odds are against you but it’s important to throw the dice and submit. You might just throw a lucky seven!

Originality, originality…

Sundance Director of Programming Trevor Groth with Senior Programmer Shari Frilot at the opening of New Frontier in January. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

I look for originality, whether it is in the form the film takes, the narrative structure it realizes, in the characters that develop, or the tone or texture it manages to create. I look for originality in voice – I look for new voices, old voices with new things to say, and voices we don’t seem to get to hear enough from. I also look for a certain level in craft and excellence in realization, and I try to do this in a way that is relative to what the filmmaker is trying to accomplish. I’m always asking, “What is this filmmaker trying to do? What is she going for?” and from there surmise whether they are achieving their goal.

Sundance films define themselves.

Favorite Sundance and non-Sundance movies of last two years:

I can’t wait to see “Inception” – I love Christopher Nolan. I loved “Winter’s Bone.” I love “Ponyo” and “Precious” is simply fierce. “The Runaways” was just way too much fun to watch. I am in love with “I Am Love.” I loved “Teenage Papparazzo” and “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.” “Enter The Void” left me breathless. I love “Dirt”! “The Movie,” “Old Partner” and “Before Tomorrow.” I adore “Stay The Same Never Change” and was completely mesmerized by “Double Take.” “Utopia In Four Movements” is a thing of beauty and will haunt me for as long as I live.

Caroline Libresco, Senior Programmer

Libresco no joining Sundance post 9/11 and her San Francisco roots…

I joined Sundance in the wake of 9/11 and the ensuing war-machine that was unleashed. I found solace in the part-inspired, part-absurd notion that art is a civilizing, humanizing, democratizing force – resolving that film might in some tiny way help counteract all the bad news. My first film job, as associate director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, taught me how potent and political the medium could be in creating transformation and provoking debate (especially when we screened Palestinian films for Jewish audiences–a radical act in the mid-1990s!).

To broaden my horizons, I became a senior publicist at the San Francisco International Film Festival and then fell in love with documentary when I joined the communications and programming team at the Independent Television Service (which funds and promotes independent documentaries and drama on public television and cable). I believed that to be a programmer respectable among filmmakers, I ought to generate films myself, so I wrote and produced a crazy indie feature called “Fanci’s Persuasion” (directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld), earned my MFA at UCLA film school and produced a couple of other movies (“Barrier Device” by Grace Lee and “Sunset Story” by Laura Gabbert). Today, I find myself a long way from the path I took right out of college, which was to become a professor of religious studies. Interestingly my graduate work in religion and narrative now resonates deeply as I look at films and engage with contemporary storytelling.

Senior programmer, Caroline Libresco. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Some thoughts on Sundance…

Due to the ingenuity of our Sundance predecessors, who, 25 years ago, built an inspired event fueled by an outpouring of independent work, we’re in the enviable (and sobering) position of having our pick of a fresh new crop of films every year. Each January we unveil the most artistically excellent and innovative work on the landscape – a standard that industry, opinion-makers and general audiences alike have come to anticipate and expect.

And how film festivals, and Sundance, are changing with the times…

Sundance will continue to mobilize and experiment with new technologies and strategies to connect artists and audiences. Despite the ever-expanding digital avenues by which content can meet its core audience, I believe film festivals remain relevant because they are a curatorial filter in a sea of undifferentiated material. Additionally, physical film festivals fulfill two human desires: one, the desire for collective experience shared with other actual breathing human beings; two, the desire to be “the first” (in their town, city or the world) to discover something they love (in this case a movie) in a public setting. Film festivals give people a collective experience of discovery.

Evaluate, evaluate and that little voice…

Before submitting to Sundance, submit your film to a rigorous process of evaluation: show it to trusted advisors, be receptive to feedback, listen to that little voice that’s telling you that one scene, character arc or music cue isn’t working yet. In other words, give the film the time it deserves to become what you truly intend it to be.

Trust our selections process. Remember: we programmers are in the business of discovery. Our festival and our careers depend on it.

What Sundance programmers are looking for:

We don’t have a definition of a “Sundance film.” Our programming discipline involves taking each film on its own terms – in other words ascertaining (or attempting to ascertain) what the filmmaker set out to accomplish and then evaluating the film based on that vision.

Of course, we’re delighted by all manner of artistry and excellence – meaningful relationships between content and style/form, freshness, ingenuity, emotional truth and authenticity, urgency, surprise, solid filmmaking, great writing and any combination of elements that “work.”

Some Sundance favs and non-Sundance favs of the past two years…

Favorite recent Sundance movies:
“Winter’s Bone,” “The Maid,” “The Oath,” “A Film Unfinished,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “Cold Souls,” “Old Partner,” “Cyrus,” “Memories of Overdevelopment,” “Anvil: The Story of Anvil,” “An Education,” “Drunk History” (with Jen Kirkman).

Favorite recent non-Sundance movies:
“Avatar,” “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers,” “Alamar,” “Tiny Furniture,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Young Elizabeth,” “Food Inc.,” “I Love You Man,” “A Serious Man,” “The Hangover.”

David Courier, Senior Programmer

Senior prgrammer, David Courier. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Courier talks background

I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and then moved to New York City to go to college. I went to Columbia University graduating with degrees in English and Theatre. I spent the first 20 years of my professional life as an actor, doing theatre in New York as well as various films and guest starring roles on television shows. I paid the bills doing commercials and playing Officer Liam Murphy on the soap opera “As The World Turns” from 1990 – 1995. I moved to Los Angeles in 1998, promptly quit acting (I know, weird, right?) and went to work full-time in film development for a few different production companies.

I started my career at Sundance in 2000. At that time, I was working for Wilshire Court productions (which is now defunct) when John Cooper asked me to screen a batch of 75 films for the festival and write coverage on them. In the batch of films I covered that first year, I wound up championing one in particular: “Scout’s Honor,” a documentary directed by Tom Shepard. That film went on to share the Audience Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and also won the Freedom of Expression Award. I was asked to return to Sundance as a documentary screener the following year.

The next year Sundance hired me as a Consulting Programmer specifically for documentaries, a position I held for three years. By this time I had left film development and was working full time as a festival programmer. I was the co-director of programming at Outfest: the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Film Festival where I spent four happy years and was hired as full-time Sundance programmer in 2006.

I’m currently a senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. My focus is both U.S. and world cinema documentaries, but when it comes down to the wire we all program everything. I also write and produce the Sundance Awards show each year (yes, I was responsible for that crazy rap song for David Hyde Pierce and Cooper last year) and serve as the point person for slotting the festival as well as being the programming point person in charge of Sundance Film Festival USA.

[In addition to Sundance], I’ve served on the advisory board for the Independent Feature Project (IFP) in New York City [a non-profit organization for independent filmmakers] and am on the board of the Buffalo International Film Festival. I’ve been on the nominating committee for the International Documentary Association Awards, the Cinema Eye Honors and the Gotham Awards and have served as a juror for a number of film festivals. I currently live in Los Angeles with my partner Charlie and our dog Augie, an 8-year-old border terrier.

…and the place of Sundance in the world…

Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper takes to the stage with David Hyde Pierce to do a rap at the 2010 Sundance awards. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Well, for one thing we never rest on our laurels. We are dedicated to remaining vital and discovering original new voices in independent film and fostering the careers of independent artists. It is a priority of our programming team to connect and reach out to artists worldwide. We bring together world-renowned artists and first-time filmmakers. We pride ourselves in being a discovery festival. We strive to find the exciting new voices in film and to introduce the world to cutting-edge talent. Last year we took discovery to a new level by introducing our NEXT section specifically devoted to low or no-budget filmmaking. The message to emerging filmmakers is that, yes, you do have a shot at premiering your film at Sundance and we want to see it. We also started Sundance Film Festival USA as a way of extending the festival experience beyond Park City and into theaters across America.

Courier’s thoughts on how film festivals, and Sundance, are changing…

Two words: Digital Initiatives. Video-on-Demand and DIY distribution are exciting new platforms that allow filmmakers to take the power into their own hands. At Sundance, we have our digital initiatives and other festivals have theirs. Digital platforms will continue to evolve at Sundance and elsewhere. It’s a very exciting time in the festival world because it’s an empowering time for filmmakers. The result? Though we’re seeing less huge sales for individual films at festivals, last year turned out to be a really good and balanced year from a sales perspective AND the digital initiatives added a whole other arena to get films out there.

His advice for submitting filmmakers

First off, send us the best, most finished cut you can because we almost never have time to watch any given film more than once. Also, make sure your DVD plays all the way through. So many filmmakers shoot themselves in the foot by not taking the time to check the DVDs they’re sending out. It’s so frustrating to be watching a film that suddenly stops playing. We have to really love what we’ve seen to request a new copy. Do your research. Know our deadlines. Regarding music: Get a friend who composes music to write a score for you. Don’t fill your film with music (the Beatles, for example) that you will never get the rights to because that music could prohibit the sale of your film.

Courier’s take on what Sundance programmers are looking for

I look for something that makes me sit up and scream with joy, “Yes, this is why I do this job, this is why I put in these incredibly long hours.” When I see something that is new and fresh or brilliantly made it makes it all worthwhile. I love movies. I love filmmakers. I want filmmakers to succeed. I want to be blown away every time I put in a DVD. Of course, that’s not how it always works out. But there are those times that it does happen and it’s very exciting and I definitely consider it a privilege. What makes a film a Sundance film is hard to say but first and foremost a Sundance film is independent cinema that has a voice of its own. Creative, gutsy, cutting-edge, original, bold, unique, compelling – these are some of the words that come to mind when I hear the term “Sundance film.”

Some of his favorite Sundance and non-Sundance movies of last two years:

It is so hard to single out favorite films from Sundance because I feel a strong connection to every film we have shown. But since you ask…

A few favs from Sundance 2009: I was a huge champion of “The Cove” and that one has obviously done pretty damn well. “Burma VJ” was another favorite that year and so was “Good Hair.” I really loved “Restrepo” last year and hope it continues to get the attention it deserves. “Exit Through The Gift Shop” is another of my favs from last year and so was “The Oath” and “The Red Chapel,” “The Tillman Story” and “Waste Land. “

On the narrative side, I guess I’d have to single out “Precious,” “An Education,” and “Sin Nombre,” and “500 Days of Summer,” from 2009 and “Winter’s Bone,” “Howl,” “Cyrus” and “Blue Valentine” from 2010. I also thought “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil” was pretty damn hilarious. Non-Sundance favorites include “Marwencol,” “October Country,” “Which Way Home,” “More Than A Game,” “Harvard Beats Yale 20-20,” “Food, Inc.,” “The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg And The Pentagon Papers.” On the narrative side some favs include “Milk,” “A Single Man,” “Avatar,” “The Hangover,” and “The Hurt Locker.”

John Nein, Senior Programmer

Senior programmer, John Nein. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

John Nein on meeting Gilmore, Libresco and being opinionated…

When I was growing up – for about a decade in Europe before moving to the U.S. – international cinema was just part of being a kid and seeing movies. But it took a while for that to become a professional relationship.

In high school I was into journalism. In college I studied history and French, but also drifted toward theater and film outside of class, doing pretty much every job in theater and making little films (which are now horrifying to contemplate, much less watch). After college, I worked for a couple years as a production coordinator, but was eager to return to something creative, so I went into the graduate film directing program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

While I was there, I took an independent producing class that Geoff Gilmore taught. [Editor’s Note: Geoff Gilmore is the former Director of the Sundance Film Festival] I also got to know Caroline Libresco, who was in the producing program. As I was finishing school and my thesis film in late 2001, Geoff hired me to organize the festival’s panel discussions and John Cooper found something for me to do for parts of the rest of the year (our archive program). My role gradually grew out of that and watching lots of films as a screener. I wasn’t particularly shy about my opinions, and somehow I just got invited to more and more meetings where I probably talked too much. I probably still do.

Nein on Sundance’s place in the festival world…

Well, Sundance’s position today stems from several decades of playing this unique role in identifying emerging talent, possessing an eye for distinctive filmmaking and doing so ahead of the curve so to speak. It provided, and continues to provide, a platform for filmmakers who really do have something to offer cinema. Now, independent cinema has undergone an enormous transformation over that time. The nature of that platform and how we go about ushering films into the world obviously changes as the industry changes, but fundamentally, what’s critical is our ability to bring visibility to these filmmakers. More than just selecting the work, there’s also a lot of behind-the-scenes work that most people never see. We spend the festival trying to figure out what we can do to support, through our relationships and position, the different goals of each film and each filmmaker.

…And how film festivals, and Sundance are changing:

It’s worth remembering that before the industry infrastructure and the market for independent film ballooned in the ’90s, Sundance (and most festivals) faced this seemingly impossible challenge of providing exposure for films and being an alternative to traditional exhibition outlets. As a result, they had to be incredibly inventive. Now, as the industry contracts, I think festivals may be facing another great challenge, but one which actually invites them to play a critical role, albeit in different ways. It requires an evolution of thinking, embracing of new technologies and accepting changing consumer habits and considering different partnerships. It’s too soon to say exactly how the industry will realign itself, but I think we have some pretty inventive ideas about how to bring new work to audiences and support filmmakers as they look to establish careers.

Advice for submitting filmmakers

Basically, I’m loath to give filmmakers any kind of advice except to make the film that speaks to them – to tell the story they’re compelled to tell. Sometime people think that if they do something in particular – if they make a certain kind of film, or say something stellar in a cover letter, or have some industry heavyweight call on their behalf – they’ve got a better chance. From my experience, the only thing that really holds water in “the room” (wherever we sit down to talk and argue through the films) is that the programmers are passionate about a movie. For every piece of conventional wisdom, there’s a great film that didn’t follow it. “Nobody knows nothing,” so make the film that speaks to you.

Nein’s take on what Sundance programmers are looking for…

One of the great things about this group of programmers is that we all come from different backgrounds, we bring different sensibilities and we appreciate or admire different qualities in a film. So, there really isn’t a “Sundance” film – one kind of movie that works uniformly for all of us. And if you look at the programs over the years, I defy you to find anything in common with all the films, across genres and styles and subjects. That said, we’d probably agree that we’re looking for something fresh: a vision that feels personal, an intuition about filmmaking that feels exciting or holds promise. For me, the highest praise I can heap on a film is that it feels like Cinema (capital C). I can’t explain that other than to say, it’s a feeling I get when a filmmaker loves the tools, relishes what they can do with images, sound, performance, a distinctive conception. When there’s exuberance.

Some favorites from Sundance and beyond of the last two years

I’m a bad shortlister; anything under 20 is too hard. “Blue Valentine,” “Bronson,” “Winter’s Bone,” “Summer Hours,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Still Walking,” “Precious,” “Cold Souls,” “A Serious Man,” “A Prophet,” “Last Train Home,” “Samson & Delilah,” “Another Year,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Goodbye Solo,” “Anvil,” “The Oath,” “Sin Nombre,” “Cyrus,” “City of Life and Death” and “You, The Living.”

Kim Yutani, Programmer

Kim Yutani on her road to programming and her role at Sundance…

My first experience of the Sundance Film Festival was in 1995. I had been Gregg Araki’s assistant on “The Doom Generation” and I wanted to be there for the film’s world premiere. That year I also saw Todd Haynes’s “Safe” and a secret midnight screening of Larry Clark’s “Kids” that [Strand Releasing co-president] Marcus Hu got me into.

It was an influential year for independent films for me and I knew I wanted to be involved in that world (and I realized production wasn’t the lifestyle for me). For years I wrote film reviews for a weekly in Atlanta, I worked at the UCLA Media Library and I had volunteered as a screener for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Then I decided I really wanted to be a film programmer.

Through Film Independent’s Project: Involve [a program that promotes diversity in filmmaking], I was set up with a mentor, Kirsten Schaffer, who was then the director of programming at Outfest (now Outfest’s executive director). I started programming for Outfest and when Sundance shorts submissions spiked in 2006, I was brought on to do some screening and assist the shorts team under Roberta Munroe, Mike Plante and Trevor Groth. The following year I was brought on as a full short film programmer for Sundance along with Todd Luoto, George Eldred and Shane Smith.

Sundance programmers Kim Yutani and Todd Luoto. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Then last year, when John Cooper was promoted to festival director and Trevor Groth became director of programming, Trevor offered me the exciting opportunity as a features programmer. So I’m the newest addition to the team. I also work with the shorts programmers in the final stretches to help finalize the shorts program for the festival. Now my year is split between my jobs as a programmer for Sundance and director of programming for Outfest.

Her general take on Sundance…

I think something Sundance does really well is connecting filmmakers with audiences. I first became aware of the importance of film festivals when I read B. Ruby Rich’s seminal article on New Queer Cinema [Sight & Sound, September 1992] and I realized then that Sundance in particular played an important part in supporting filmmakers who were passionate about the stories they were telling and giving them a platform. Of course, Sundance had been doing this for years and continues to (with the festival and the Labs).

I think that knowing there is that type of exhibition opportunity that supports the artist’s creative vision, perpetuates the desire to tell stories that have real heart behind them. And the fact that Sundance continues to be a goal for so many independent filmmakers keeps competition healthy, the level of quality high, and that in turn [keeps] audiences and the industry looking to the festival to find some of the freshest talent and most fascinating stories every January.

Yutani’s take on the ways film festivals, and Sundance, are changing…

Probably the most obvious observation is that fewer big deals are being made at festivals nowadays and it’s an uncertain time for many people involved in the business. I think for Sundance, the focus is on keeping the festival moving forward and adjusting to the world as we’re experiencing it, whether it comes down to technology, the economy, or art itself.

One of the manifestations of this is how Sundance extends beyond the actual festival in Park City. One can have a Sundance experience wherever one is, whether it’s watching shorts on one’s computer via YouTube, watching an on-demand feature film, or through expansion of the festival through Sundance USA, you’re [able to visit] your local cinema to see a film that’s [also] premiering at Sundance [in Park City]. However, I think within the festival context, New Frontier is one of the most exciting and less traditional components. I always look forward to seeing the programming Shari [Frilot] does with New Frontier to see some of the most interesting and unconventional work, whether it be film, performance and/or installation art.

Advice for submitting filmmakers

On the conceptual level, I think it’s important for filmmakers to familiarize themselves with the films that have been in Sundance in previous years – understanding the quality of the work, the strength in storytelling, creative risks and how important performances are. However, though Sundance might be a filmmaker’s goal, one shouldn’t set out to make a film for Sundance. A filmmaker should make the film that s/he is passionate about and committed to and hopefully the film will find its place. The odds of getting a film into Sundance are not high and there are many festivals in the world that can do great things for a film.

On the practical side, though we’re used to watching rough cuts, get your film as close to your final edit as possible. We have so many films to get through in a short period of time, we don’t have the time to re-watch films, even if it is a new cut. But don’t stress out about color correction and sound mix – we know your films are going to look great in the end. Also, fancy press kits are not necessary. Just send us your film on a DVD (but don’t use those giant labels that cover the entire surface of the DVD that get jammed in our players).

And what Sundance programmers are looking for…

I don’t know that there’s any real definitive “Sundance film” because if you look at the film guide, you see a wide array of programming and it’s hard to pinpoint trends in the program. However because there are so many variables in what makes a film successful and we approach each film individually, there are certain qualities that you can see in the films we show – often a film’s originality and filmmakers with a distinct vision shine through. When watching a film we often question if we’ve seen this story before and if we have, what’s different about the way this filmmakers is telling it.

Some favorite Sundance and non-Sundance movies of last two years:

The Sundance documentary line-up is always formidable. Some of my favorite films this year were “The Oath,” “A Small Act” and “Secrets Of The Tribe.” And I love docs that take us into the worlds of some of the most fascinating people, like Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington (“The September Issue”), paparazzo Ron Galella (“Smash His Camera”), Jean-Michel Basquiat (“Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child”) and Joan Rivers (“Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”).

Kimberly Reed’s “Prodigal Sons” is a doc that wasn’t shown at Sundance but I think is a must-see. And as excited as I am that we can readily access so many different types films on our computers these days, I’m glad there are beautiful and cinematic films that really demand to be projected on the big screen. Two of my favorites this year were Javier-Fuentes Leon’s “Undertow” (“Contracorriente”) and Luca Guadanino’s “I Am Love.”

Todd Luoto, Programmer

Luoto on forgoing water-downed coffee with execs, hanging with filmmakers and “Oil Change”…

After graduating from film school, I had a year-long tenure at Dimension Films as a development assistant. Even though it exposed me a lot of great things that I was thankful to see, it ultimately wasn’t the right fit personality-wise as I think I was far too idealistic in the way that I looked at film as more of an art and less as a business. With that way of thinking in mind, film festivals seemed to be the logical next step as I was much more focused (and interested) in hanging with filmmakers (who I felt a kinship with) rather than executives (who I made copies and watered-down coffee for).

While my first official experience as a programmer was with the Newport Beach Film Festival back in 2004, it was ultimately being able to screen my terrible student short at a number of (mostly) smaller film festivals that really attracted me to this whole community. I have since worked as a programmer with the Silver Lake Film Festival, CineVegas, and was thankfully let in the door to Sundance by two people (John Cooper and Trevor Groth) who were kind enough to give me a great opportunity within this organization. This will be my 5th festival, and will most likely be my favorite. I think this fact has something to do with 5 Golden Rings being my favorite thing on the pear tree, but I won’t be entirely be sure of that until somewhere down the road…

Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

In the off-season, I’m a filmmaker as well. I had a short film, “Oil Change,” that played a number of film festivals last year (Tribeca, AFI, among others), and I hope to make my first feature in the summer of 2011 that steals everything from “Citizen Kane” with the exception of the title.

Luoto’s take on Sundance…

Well, even before I came here, I really thought that Sundance remained a premiere festival because the people in this organization all very much believe in what they do and the purpose it serves. In terms of programming, we work really hard to find the best material out there that challenges, educates and inspires. As far as industry goes, we cater and care about the individual needs of the companies and organization that interact with our programs and roster. And when it comes to filmmakers, we pride ourselves at giving them the biggest and best platform out there. We aren’t in the game for ourselves – no one is getting rich here – we’re in the game to do what is best for the community at large, because we care about such an outcome. It’s that sort of commitment – for films, for filmmakers, for the future of independent storytelling as a whole – that I think remains relevant and at the same time allows our organization to stay crucial and successful.

And on the evolution of festivals and the short film…

Well, when it comes to features, it’s a tough climate out there for sure. The distribution model has changed for independent cinema, and new online frontiers (or more specifically, practices) threaten to capsize the financial model for content creation. With this in mind, festivals are rewriting the rules of the game yet at the same time truly returning to the roots of why such a platform and community hub exists and NEEDS to exist. I think there’s something scary but quite exciting about the position we’re in. The future of how independent films are experienced and perceived can literally go a thousand ways, and that’s a pretty liberating idea. And fall where things may – and I’m expecting less apocalypse and more resurrection here – festivals shall remain the forefront of relevancy and the backbone of tradition and community development when it comes to independent cinema.

As for short films though, I think that’s the exciting part that isn’t gonna take a while to figure out – it’s happening now. In these times, language is not just made up of words, it’s composed of images too as it’s becoming very clear we’re all part of a video culture. Thanks to the internet boom (and I’m more referring to the one where we could watch videos easily, not the older one where we could yell at our friends in chatrooms and sell Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten pancakes on E-bay) and cheap digital tools, the short form has been embraced.

Once upon a time, the idea of a short film was limited to cheesy commercial spots, old school Pink Panther intros, and the occasional (and terrible) sitcom on NBC. Now, thanks to innovative programming, social media, YouTube, Funny or Die, and Gen Y’s rapid emergence of ADD, everyone is becoming pretty hip to shorts. Naturally, with that sort of demand, comes more places and more festivals willing to screen short films and celebrate them. Festivals were first to do it, and I still think are the most fun. As great as the internet is to reach millions audience-wise, nothing compares to a filmmaker as much as a darkened room with literally hundreds of people laughing, crying, gasping and clapping in unison.

Luoto’s advice…

The 2010 Artists at with installations at Sundance’s New Frontier in Park City last January. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

You don’t need to know Harvey Weinstein (the rumor when I was in film school) or Todd Luoto (what I am hoping the rumor is now, thought I highly doubt it) to get your film in here. It’s very possible to play Sundance, and it’s open to everyone. You don’t come with anymore of an advantage or disadvantage than anyone else who is submitting, as our programming process is truly a pure system. We WANT to love your film, so know we’re gonna give it every shot, consideration and thought we can.

For those that don’t get accepted, remember this: Keep the faith. Don’t lose track…and remember that art is a subjective process. It’s very parental-like advice, I suppose (and I trust that is probably the extent of me doing anything ‘parental’), but the one thing that is a necessary evil in festivals is some form of exclusion. That said, filmmakers need to know that just because their film didn’t get into Sundance, didn’t mean we didn’t like it. There is a good chance we did. But our home is small, and every year we have to make some really, really tough choices.

What a programmer looks for an that “Sundance film…

The thing is, I can’t define a Sundance film. If I could, it would give us a label that would be hard to shake off. Much in the same way I think of films, I think the programming process should evolve and not be about one thing or one way. Filmmaking is a relatively new art form, and I think we all would agree there is no reason for things to be stale. I feel that way about our programming too – we want to remain as innovative and as evolutionary as the work we watch, discuss, and obsess over.

Sundance and non-Sundance favorites of the past two years…

“Short Term 12” won the US prize in 2009 is definitely one of my favs. Destin Daniel Cretton’s story about a children’s residential facility, and the troubled adults that take care of them, has just about everything you could want in a good story: strong characters, great writing, solid production, laughs, tears, and an ending that will…well, you should see it. Destin is truly a talented guy, and the film really connects on so many emotional levels.

The US winner last year, “Drunk History: Douglass and Lincoln,” directed by Jerry Konner and created by Derek Waters is another film that also picked up the US Prize (this time in 2010), but is somewhat of a different type of film than “Short Term 12” is. What I like about this title is that it is of a style of storytelling that was initially just reserved for the web, yet something we’ve really embraced at Sundance and see other film festivals following form. “The Drunk History” series premiered on YouTube and “Funny or Die” over a year before we programmed the newest installment this past January. I like to point this out because all forms of short content are really coming under the same festival umbrella, and our festival programming style – much like movies in general – isn’t so easy to define, and thankfully so.

Sundance Deadlines:

Note, are the dates by which films MUST be received in the Sundance Institute Los Angeles office.

Early Submission Deadlines:

U.S. & International Short films
Monday, August 16th, 2010 – $35 Entry Fee

U.S. & International Feature Films & Documentaries
Monday, August 16th, 2010 – $45 Entry Fee

Official Submission Deadlines:

U.S. & International Short Films
Friday, September 3rd, 2010 – $50 Entry Fee

U.S. & International Feature Films & Documentaries
Friday, September 3rd, 2010 – $75 Entry Fee

Late Submission Deadlines:

U.S. & International Short Films
Monday, September 20th, 2010 – $75 Entry Fee

U.S. & International Feature Films & Documentaries
Friday, September 24th, 2010 – $100 Entry Fee

[For frequently asked questions, visit: www.sundance.org/submissions]

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