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Robot & Frank and Valley of Saints at Sundance via Sloan Foundation Support

Robot & Frank and Valley of Saints at Sundance via Sloan Foundation Support

One of the most exciting financial initiatives for the independent filmmaker is offered by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  It believes that a carefully reasoned and systematic understanding of the forces of nature and society, when applied inventively and wisely, can lead to a better world for all.  The Foundation makes grants to support original research and broad-based education related to science, technology, and economic performance; and to improve the quality of American life.  Though founded in 1934 by Alfred P. Sloan Jr., then-President and CEO of General Motors, the Foundation is an independent entity and has no formal relationship with the General Motors Corporation.

Armed with this general knowledge of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation  I was lucky to be able to interview Doron Weber, the Vice President of the Sloan Foundation who was at the Sundance Film Festival with a couple of their prize winning films.  I also knew of the Sloan Foundation through Denise Kassel and the Coolidge Corner Theater who for two years running has been touting the Foundation at the Art House Convergence held just before the Film Festival.

“It is not fostering films that teach but films that integrate science into the drama that makes for good stories. This program brings public understanding of science and technology which is about bridging the gap between the two cultures and fostering a keener appreciation of the increasingly scientific and technological world in which we live. Also humanizing the face of science—and of the men and women engaged in scientific and technological  pursuit.

The Public Understanding Program supports books, radio, television, film, theater, opera and special events. The film program specifically has three components, of which the first is film schools —- which includes AFI, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, NYU, UCLA and USC — and annual awards in screenwriting (feature scripts and film production, short films).

This is where Robot & Frank was hatched, as a $20,000 production grant to writer Chris Ford and director Jake Shcreier who eight years later turned it into a feature film (on their own. “We also give out a new $50,000 grand jury prize for the best script from the winning screenplays (Best of the Best) and a handful of $100,000 first feature production grants for camera-ready scripts. This is where Valley of Saints won its $100k grant. We later gave Valley of Saints a second grant through our screenplay development program which has four partners, our three film festival partners—Sundance, Tribeca and Hamptons—and Film Independent. Film Independent gave Valley its Sloan Producers Grant of $25k to keep that project going. So in this way we use our four partners as a “farm system” and keep nurturing projects until they get finished.”

Two examples were highlights of Sundance this year.  Jake Schreir’s Premieres film, Robot & Frank, starring Frank Langella, a tale of a man who strikes up an unlikely friendship with his robotic caretaker was developed with Sloan support as was Musa Syeed’s World Competition film Valley of Saints for which he granted $100,000 as a First Feature Grant.  

But that is not the end of the story. Doron points to continual support of films the Foundation backs. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Feature Film Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival of $20,000 was split between Robot & Frank which is about technology and our relationship with it, and Valley of Saints for the innovative way the film depicts the scientist at the heart of the film. It takes a particular point of view to incorporate a scientific element into a feature. Think A Beautiful Mind, Social Network, Moneyball, Contagion, Memento, The Aviator, and even Frankenstein. There are many way to make a science and technology-themed film.

Valley of Saints : Teaser Trailer from People’s Television on Vimeo.

Valley of Saints, also won the World Audience Award at Sundance.  This beautiful film taking place in crown jewel of Kashmir, Dal Lake is a sprawling aquatic community where erupting political violence often distracts from the natural beauty.  In Berlin’s EFM, it will be represented by The Film Collaborative.  See the trailer here.

Another element of the Sloan Foundation is its support of the distribution of these films. Art House Convergence has become a grantee of distribution support as well. Films like Frankenstein or any other film chosen by a member theater of the Art House Convergence can be chosen along with a speaker on the science in the film and distribution will be paid for by the Sloan Foundation. “This is a new program and so far no Sloan film has been distributed. But as a condition of the new grants, every theatre which agrees to screen three Science on Screen films will have to choose one from the Sloan Library of films that have either won prizes by us or been developed with foundation help.”

The Science on Screen: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Grant Program began at The Coolidge Corner Theater.  Denise Kassel who left the Hamptons Film Festival to go to Coolidge Corner used her relationship with the Sloan Foundation to expand film and scientific literacy with this popular program, now in its eighth year. Last year, eight grants of $7,000 were awarded to Convergence participants. Those grant recipients returned this year to AHC to tell others about their Science on Screen experiences, and to encourage other theaters to apply for this year’s expanded grants program. Through generous funding support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Coolidge Corner Theatre is launching a second year of its national Science on Screen initiative at the Art House Convergence. In 2012, the Coolidge will issue 20 grants of $7,000 to art house cinemas across the country for use in implementing their own Science on Screen programming.   Denise Kasell, Executive Director, Coolidge Corner Theatre discussed this with Beth Gilligan, Associate Director of Development, Marketing & Outreach, Coolidge Corner Theatre; Cheryl White, Science on Screen Program Manager, Coolidge Corner Theatre; Doron Weber, Vice President, Programs, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; Brian Hearn, Film Curator, Oklahoma City Museum of Art; Tara Schroeder, Director of Programming & Marketing, Tampa Theatre.

The Foundation’s Public Understanding Project which includes film as one small part of its reach has four feature film projects that have been completed and are being released: Future Weather which might go to Tribeca, and Whaling City which is in post and received $100,000, Robot & Frank and Valley of Saints. They now have a library of 30 films.

Doron told me how it works. “First each partner institution selects a short list with a committee of film professional and scientists. Then they send me what they have. I weigh in about suitability only after they have chosen something as film-worthy. The films are not sci-fi or about medicine. They are about science or technology. The mission is to deepen appreciation of modern life via two cultures, that of everyday life and that of science.” He receives scripts from one of four partners who have chosen them: Tribeca, Sundance, Film Independent and the Hamptons Film Festival.

“We also read scripts from six film schools which is how we got Valley of Saints and Robot & Frank. “ The six film schools are NYU’s Tisch School, Columbia U., USC, UCLA, AFI and Carnegie Mellon.

The material might be Alan Alda’s current play at the Geffen Theater in L.A. on Marie Curie (though there are two other Marie Curie projects); they also will commission such plays, or books, radio, tv. The plays are a totally separate theatre program. “Here we have three theatre partners: Ensemble Studio Theatre, Manhattan Theatre Company and Playwrights Horizons. The Foundation comes in very early with development money which they recognize is very important and very hard to find. An example is How The World Began. This is just a play. The other play is Photograph 51 which is being developed into a screenplay by the playwright Anna Ziegler, Rachel Weisz as producer and Protozoa Pictures. There is no budget yet though I suspect it will come out closer to $5 million. Photographing Creationism which is about DNA went from a play to a screenplay with a budget of $10 million.”

Doron Weber came to Sloan with a background in the humanities rather than in science. He has also written several books in the health and science arena and worked at the Rockefeller University, a world class biomedical center. “ My education is in the arts but my professional life has been at the intersection of science and the arts.” He came to Sloan who did not do art projects at that time, and he brought them in on mass media.  He has been at the Foundation for more than sixteen years.

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