Why Haven't Aspiring Filmmakers Been Told These Facts About Sundance?
by Mandi Harrison
The Sundance Film Festival is a lofty goal for filmmakers. For some, it's the Holy Grail; for others, it's just a box to check off on a to do list to get to the top. You could ask almost anyone and they will have at least heard of Sundance. TV shows and movies in an attempt to show that their character is a SERIOUS film maker will have them go to or talk about when they went to Sundance. I've dreamed of going to Sundance since I first heard of it, reading my Entertainment Weekly subscription in high school. And then later on One Tree Hill, when Julian's film was selected and he took the whole crew for moral support- OMG. I REALLY wanted to go after that. (Yeah, I watch One Tree Hill. Pretty People with Pretty Problems™ -guilty pleasure)
The thing that I didn't realize then was how much work goes into getting into the festival- not to mention staying afloat while there. A lot of filmmakers still go in with stars in their eyes and dreams in their hearts, only to be completely devastated or, even worse, jaded when they are not selected. We've watched several documentaries, attended panels, read posts on social media and talked to many filmmakers. The majority just preach NOT to submit to festivals. They feel like they have been betrayed- duped even. If only someone had told them the truth about Sundance!
I'm not saying that they didn't do their research, but.... we have found plenty of articles and books and interviews and documentaries about Sundance. These are just some things that we uncovered between reading and putting two and two together.
1. The chances of being selected is slim to none.
You've made your brilliant movie, you've filled out your application, paid the fee and uploaded your film. Now you just sit back and wait for that acceptance email.
In 2017, 4,068 feature films were submitted to Sundance- that's not even counting short films or documentaries. Of those entries, 113 films were selected. Of those, 37 films were by first time directors and 32 were from other countries. You also have to take into account that at least 10 of those first time directors are Sundance alum or actors making their directorial debut. So that leaves at MOST 27 films. That's a .006% chance that you'd be selected. But don't give up hope- it's not an immediate no!
2. That doesn't necessarily mean your movie is terrible.
If you get that "Good luck on your future endeavors" email, don't give up. I don't look at it as a rejection. I look at it as a "well I WILL have good luck on my endeavors!" We tried and now we can try something else.
That letter doesn't mean your film should never see the light of day. Festivals, Sundance in particular, have an Official or unofficial theme each year. The selection committee will look for films that fit that particular criteria. Yours might not have met their needs. Researching festivals before you submit your film helps you see what is best for both parties. Or maybe your film is terrible. In that case, just keep making movies until you develop your skill.
3. Your entry fee funds more than just the festival.
*Sighs* It amazes me how many people are shocked that their entry fee funds the festival they are entering. This is all across the board. Any festival. What I want to know is, what did they think their money was going towards? It's not like you are paying for a concert ticket and getting guaranteed entrance.
Of course the entry fee covers the festival, including payroll for the employees. Festivals depend on volunteers, but Sundance does have full time employees. Some of the entry fees, as well as the badges that are purchased by the attendees, goes towards funding multiple projects through The Sundance Institute. They have several programs that assist filmmakers from all walks of life and skill levels with completing their project. The alumni of these projects come back to assist with the retreats. So yes, you might have been gambling with that entry fee, but it is going towards the filmmaking community as a whole.
4. It's not what you know... it's WHO you know.
Part of what charmed me about Sundance is that it appears to be like summer camp- but in the winter and for movies. Everyone is friends and is super happy to be there and then I realized- everyone is there BECAUSE they know each other. Alumni are almost guaranteed a spot- it's perfect advertising. A possible award season contender wants to premiere- absolutely. The first film of a Hollywood darling- yes please. Even more so if it's from the progeny of a star- because it's sure to be ripe with underlying family drama. Heck, even on One Tree Hill, Julian's movie probably only got selected because HIS dad was a big time director.
The point I'm rambling about is that the odds of getting in are favorably higher if you know someone who knows someone who can get your film into the right hands. Or if you find out you're a long lost Duplass cousin. Or you have built up a name for yourself, something that makes people take notice of you. Plus, you really do have a great movie.
5. Kevin Smith & Ed Burns are the exception, not the rule.
*Double sighs* Almost every article about Sundance and every person that hasn't been rendered jaded beyond repair will squeak "IF KEVIN SMITH AND ED BURNS MADE IT, ANYONE CAN!!!" I really hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it (probably) won't happen for you. At least not to the extent that it happened for them.
Kevin Smith's Clerks and Ed Burns' The Brothers McMullen are indie darlings. They are the stuff that urban legends are made out of. Clerks was made for less than $28,000, completely self-financed and made. It was purchased by Miramax for distribution and went on to make $3 million on just 50 screens. It's now a cult classic and Smith is an indie nerd god. Brothers McMullen also was made for $28,000, also self funded and made and was the first movie to be purchased for distribution by Fox Searchlight. The box office totals were over $10 million. It is on several indie filmmakers' lists of best first feature. (For a little more history, read this)
This is where everyone gets their hopes up too high. Two normal guys, working regular jobs, doing everything they can to make their dream happen and then all the stars align for them. Good things do happen! You too could be part of a bidding war for your movie! Every year there is at least one filmmaker that gets a huge distribution deal! Well, sweets, let me tell you- those "deals" were more than likely pre-planned. Back after the late 90's-early 2000's heyday of indie films, the major studios decided that they wanted a part of the action. But festival rules state that the films submitted for competition must be independently financed- meaning no studio involvement in production. These distribution deals have been agreed upon beforehand, but announced and the contracts signed during the festivals. Sneaky, but there's nothing technically wrong with it.
Now, there are distribution deals to be had, maybe just not in the multi-million dollar range. But studios will send their teams to watch films and look for audience reactions. If something that didn't necessarily catch their eye before has a great audience reaction, the teams have permission to make an offer. That is what happened with Clerks and The Brothers McMullen.
6. But it wasn't ALL luck that made Kevin & Ed succeed.
They really did have a great first break, but Kevin and Ed were both extremely smart and made sure they succeeded. Kevin Smith put everything he had into the making of his movie and the audience ate it up. He knew it wasn't perfect, but it was the best that he had to work with. When he met with the studio reps, the first thing he said was "Tell me how to fix it." He was proud of what he did, but humble enough to know he needed help in order to better the finished project.
Ed Burns utilized everything he had- his family and friends, his house, even his job as a cameraman for Entertainment Tonight, editing the film after he finished working. When he had a version that he was satisfied with, he was able to slip a copy to Robert Redford after filming an interview. He did everything he could to get noticed. Good things may come to those who wait, but great things come to those who bust ass. Which is something that Ed has done his whole career.
7. Sundance is a major cog in the "non-existent" festival circuit.
Sundance, just like Hollywood, is a business first. Festivals have become an essential tool in marketing. It's been said that there is not a festival circuit, but there totally is. There are several festivals, Sundance included, that start the talk for award season. Each one plays to a particular market. Sundance caters to the more indie crowd- the slightly more free thinkers. Movies such as Little Miss Sunshine, Winter's Bone, and Reservoir Dogs have all premiered at the festival, and earned Oscar nominations and much acclaim- which translates into more money for future projects. It's a constant circle.
These are just a few things that I think would help to better understand Sundance. Whenever you want to submit to any festival, do your research. Make sure that it is the best fit for you. It's not one size fits all. Even after doing my research, knowing what I know now, attending Sundance is still something that I am working towards. It may only be a .006% chance, but that chance could be ours.