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Killing the Sundance Myth: No Filmmaker Comes Out of Nowhere

What’s an unconnected filmmaker to do about a festival with over 14,000 applicants? Don't worry about it.

Sundance Film Festival Main Street

Sundance Film Festival

George Frey/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

In March 1985, the great George Plimpton wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated that told the story of Sidd Finch, a seemingly out-of-nowhere mountain man who was raised in an English orphanage, studied yoga in Tibet, and was now discovered by the New York Mets. The team was desperate to keep him under wraps because he threw the baseball at 168 mph. After creating an enormous stir inside the media and the sport itself with Plimpton’s exceedingly well-told yarn, the magazine revealed that Finch was, in fact, an elaborate April Fool’s joke.

The idea that a human being could throw a ball 168 mph is implausible, but the part of the story that should have sounded alarms is that such a prodigious talent would go undiscovered and then, somehow, kept secret. Pro baseball players, like Sundance filmmakers, don’t come out of nowhere.

Of all the Sundance myths that developed over the last 35 years, the biggest fallacy is that of being magically discovered and launching one’s career on a snow-covered January evening in Park City. If anything, when that does happen, it’s across the street at Slamdance, like when Kevin Smith saw a no-budget, off-the-wall film by a young Canadian (Matt Johnson’s “The Dirties”), or Steven Soderbergh caught some experimental flick by two Cleveland brothers (Anthony and Joe Russo’s “Pieces”).

And yet when young filmmakers submitted their Withoutabox application to Sundance this year, alongside a record-breaking 14,259 applicants, they dreamed of being the next Benh Zeitlin, who, as legend has it, strolled into Sundance with his young rag-tag New Orleans crew and a film featuring no professional actors to shock everybody with “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which would make him an Oscar-nominated director.

Three years before director Benh Zeitlin took the Sundance Film Festival by story, he workshopped his breakout hit at the 2009 Lab.

Three years before director Benh Zeitlin took the Sundance Film Festival by storm, he workshopped his breakout hit at the 2009 Lab

© 2016 Sundance Institute | Photo by Fred Hayes

Zeitlin did not come out of nowhere. His short, “Glory at Sea,” before it made a huge splash at SXSW, had gathered support from major filmmakers. Then he went to the Sundance labs before picking up major nonprofit financial support from everyone from CineReach to SFFilm, and that connected him with George Lucas’ ILM to help with the visual effects and to do his pre-fest sound mix at the Skywalker Ranch. Heck, I remember seven years before “Beasts” seeing his incredibly impressive student film “Egg” and, like everyone else at the screening asking, “Who is this Zeitlin kid?”

In other words, like Sidd Finch, he didn’t descend the proverbial Sundance mountain playing his French horn with one boot on (Plimpton really was a national treasure). His magical Sundance moment of being an overnight success was the culmination of years of incremental steps, many of which happened under the watchful and helpful eye of Independent Film’s elite gatekeepers.

In fact — and I don’t mean to burst anyone’s bubble here, but like all the competition films that year, this year, and all the years in between — the Sundance programming team didn’t find his film filing through thousands of Withoutabox applications. No doubt the head programmers were sent various cuts of the film along the way to screen, because like hundreds of other films, many of which inevitably didn’t get into Sundance, “Beasts” was carefully tracked.

When IndieWire asked Sundance’s new Director of Programming, Kim Yutani, what the biggest surprise discovery was in programming the 2019 festival, she didn’t really have an answer. “We track these things so far in advance,” said Yutani. “I feel like I hear about anything before it gets to us, but that’s just because we’re doing our job.”

If you are a young filmmaker staring at the abyss of 14K applicants and are not on Sundance’s radar, no doubt getting into Sundance feels like insurmountable odds. Maybe you didn’t go to NYU or a prestigious film school with connections, or have access to a big indie producer like Christine Vachon, who the moment her Killer Films puts a director under its wings, becomes someone Sundance must keep an eye on. That might seem unfair, but in reality, based on Vachon’s track record with scripts and filmmakers, it’s common sense.

So what should you do when the various gatekeepers — labs, producers, nonprofit funders and the wide variety of well-respected and well-connected figures in the indie world — seem as inaccessible as Sundance itself?

Alma Har’el, the Israeli-born filmmaker was broke, never went to film school, had no practical experience or industry connections. In retrospect, those now seem like assets when looking at her endlessly inventive first feature “Bombay Beach,” which she shot herself on a cheap consumer camera embedding herself in a forgotten town along the Salton Sea.

While Har’el’s 2011 debut didn’t get into Sundance — it played and won Tribeca Film Festival, a premiere platform for nonfiction features — she will make her Park City debut next month with her first scripted narrative, “Honey Boy.” It can certainly be debated if her previous two films should have played Sundance, or if it should have taken a filmmaker with her talent the better part of a decade to finally get a chance to direct her first scripted project, but what can’t be debated is the unique cinematic voice she displayed in “Bombay Beach” found a platform and the attention of indie gatekeepers. If they weren’t already, by early 2011 Sundance was carefully tracking Har’el’s career.

Young filmmakers with dreams of Sundance should not view the network of festival programmers, nonprofit talent developers, producers, and yes, filmmakers (no recommendations mean more) as a hurdle. In reality, their tentacles spread far and deep searching for talent.

A few years ago, I was a documentary feature jurist at a small DIY film fest dedicated to discovery. I had never heard of the filmmakers or the films in competition, but after the fest, I got an email from someone at Sundance asking if I’d seen anything good, which I had — there was one film by two southern photographers-turned-filmmakers that blew me away, as it had my fellow jurists. I was one of the very first people to see this film, and within a week someone at Sundance was watching “Farmer/Veteran” from a Vimeo link.

A decade ago, my girlfriend at the time produced her first indie feature. The director was from the off-Broadway theater world, it was independently financed, and had virtually no profile. However, there were enough well-known players involved that it registered — and I was approached by employees from two top distributors asking me if the film would be any good, what was the deal with the director, what could I tell them about the world of the film. And I was just the boyfriend.

“Honey Boy”

This year, the Sundance programming team is taking kudos for one of their most diverse festivals. Women comprise 53 percent of the directors in this year’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, 41 percent are people of color; 18 percent identify as LGBTQIA+. Sure, those making selections deserve a nod, but the reality is these numbers are the product of opening new pipelines to the programmers. It’s the product of Sundance’s careful and multi-year effort, spearheaded by Moira Griffin, the former senior manager of diversity initiatives, to find new and fresh sources that feed Sundance.

So for the unconnected, unknown filmmaker lost in the sea of thousands of filmmakers gunning for Sundance, the reality is it very well may be out of reach — for now. You cannot throw a 168 mph fastball that will catapult your career. Like with Har’el and Zeitlin, there likely other festivals for you at this stage. Your biggest challenge is to keep making films, not that you are so far down the totem pole that you can’t get into the Sundance parties.

By the way, the parties are horrible. You have a far better chance of meeting people on the rush line talking about filmmaking, which should be your fuel. If it’s not, you’ll never make it.

Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.

Correction: Moira Griffin is no longer with Sundance and is the Executive Director of Production and Creative Labs for 21st Century Fox Global Inclusion.

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