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Getting the call from the Sundance Film Festival that your film has been accepted can be one of the most exhilarating moments indie filmmakers will ever experience, but it can also be one of the most sobering ones. With approximately two months between acceptance letters and premieres, filmmakers are faced with having to finish editing their films, completing sound design (including sound effects, score and mix) and mastering the picture (including color correction and special effects), often on a shoestring budget while over 100 other indies face the same deadline.
Speeding to the Finish Line
“The Sundance announcement is an especially hard win to fully enjoy,” said producer Alicia Van Couvering, whose Sundance-premiering credits include last year’s “Cop Car” and “Digging For Fire.”
“You don’t ever want to turn down a major festival, but you have to ask yourselves, ‘Can we really do this?'” added producer Rebecca Green, who worked Sundance last year with “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
“Is the film going to be compromised if we move this fast?” This is a conversation Green had with her team in the five weeks they had to finish “It Follows” before its 2014 premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. On “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which had a much smaller budget, Green knew that in order to work with quality vendors they couldn’t wait to find out if they got into Sundance.
“‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ was budgeted under $500,000, so you have to work on low rates with people,” explained Green. “We knew if we waited until the Sundance crunch time, it would be a lot harder to secure times and rates with post vendors we wanted to work with, so we did the post work beforehand.”
With many indies shooting in the summer before Sundance, they don’t have the luxury of getting ahead of the curve, but most productions that believe they have even a chance at premiering at Sundance do preemptively put Park City housing and post production vendors on hold ahead of the announcement. Deadlines always lead to escalating costs, but most indie teams find there are post production houses and artists willing to work within a film’s time and budgetary constraints.
“[Colorist] Alex Bickel at Color Collective is a perfect example,” said producer Sophia Lin, a Sundance Institute Creative Producing Fellow and winner of the prestigious Piaget Producer’s Award. “He pursued working with director Craig Zobel and cinematographers Adam Stone [‘Take Shelter,’ ‘Compliance’], and Tim Orr [‘Z for Zachariah’] and we consider him an integral part of those films. Together we found a way to afford as much as possible — working with and around his commercial schedule, doing evening sessions if necessary.”
“We Almost Didn’t Make It”
The motivation for colorists, sound mixers, composers, special effects artists and post-production supervisors to forgo their normal commercial rates is clear: they want to work on cool films and advance their feature film careers. The larger issue for them is often less associated with how much they’ll get paid and more with their ability to do competent jobs working in a compressed time period. If the film is going to be a showcase for their talents, they want to ensure they will have the ability to do quality work.
“I’m ready to start working today, but no one has a picture locked cut for me,” said one in-demand post production artisan, who is working on multiple 2016 Sundance films. “Meanwhile, producers are haggling with the financiers and now they don’t know if they can hire me. You have to remember, I’m one cog in the wheel. There’s other post people that are going to need to work on these films after I’m done and before Sundance.”
The result is the infamous last minute “we almost didn’t make it” stories. Three different filmmakers who spoke to Indiewire for this article had stories of someone, a friend or member of the crew, grabbing a tape from the lab, hopping on a plane to Utah and delivering the film to Sundance Quality Control — a group warmly praised for their diligence and understanding — the day of the premiere.
The costs continue to mount as the Sundance deadline looms and it’s often not for the post production work that’s been budgeted.
“There are big hidden costs that suddenly start to escalate — publicists, flights, housing, extra tickets, cabs, printed materials,” explained Van Couvering. “And on the film side, VFX fixes you didn’t know you needed; sound issues that need to be suddenly and expensively corrected.”
“We still had raise money for ‘See You In My Dreams,’ which is an aspect I don’t think a lot of people think about,” said Green. “You have to finish your film, you have to raise money to go to Sundance and then you have to raise money to deliver your film if you sell it [distributors require films deliver a number of elements, secure legal rights and finish specific post work to complete the sale].”
Green added that having a film get into Sundance definitely makes it easier to raise funds — in the case of “Dreams,” all 11 original investors signed on — but the process was still extremely challenging.
“You still have to re-pitch all the investors,” she said. “The budget is now going up and you are doing more legal paperwork involved with doing another financial raise, all in a one month time frame.”
According to Producer Michele Turnure-Salleo, who is the director of the San Francisco Film Society’s Filmmaker360 program — a non-profit that advises and hands out large financial grants to films like “Fruitvale,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Short Term 12” — there’s a cycle in indie films that isn’t necessarily healthy.
“There is something that happens in the fall, really from a lot of people coming out of shooting in the summer and then suddenly there are these five or six festivals they are applying to, which begins with Sundance,” explained Turnure-Salleo. “Too many films are rushing through things like sound design, which is vital part of the artistic process.”
To address this problem, SFFS now hands out its post-production grants ahead of the major festival announcements, but it also introduces its filmmakers to key artistic post people while the film is in production, so that directors and technicians are taking important post issues into account while they shoot.
But not everybody gets a SFFS grant and is getting a first class sound mix at Skywalker paid for, which was the case for “Beasts” and “Fruitvale.” There are also often producers and directors who have worked for free or little money for well over a year on the film and are not willing to dilute their potential backend by raising additional funds. It’s for this reason that for the last last three Sundance film festivals, a handful of films like “Obvious Child” and “Sembene” have turned to crowdfunding to raise post production funds after getting into Sundance. Kickstarter’s Dan Schoenbrun told Indiewire that 2016 likely won’t be much different, with a number of projects already inquiring about crowdfunding for the festival.
Building a Team
Beyond finishing films and the finances, there’s the element of getting everybody to Park City and getting everyone on the same page in terms of how they’ll talk about the film, especially the actors, and making sure everybody feels part of the team and has good experience.
“Producers are finding sales agents, we’re dealing with tickets, with parties, travel, getting all your talent there and with very little money you are coordinating what feels like a whole another production,” explained Green.
“It’s a bit like throwing a four-day wedding,” joked Van Couvering. “Except Your bridesmaids are movie stars and your in-laws are financiers and all the guests are strangers who are planning to live tweet their reviews of the ceremony.”