Submitting to Sundance: 5 Things That Will Help (and 5 That Won’t)

For about one third of the independent filmmaking community, the last few weeks of September are the most pressure-packed weeks of the year. Why? Because filmmakers are rushing to finish their films before the final Sundance Film Festival deadline. The other two thirds of them either submitted last year or they’re looking to submit next year.

To ease some of the stress, Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer Kim Yutani and Shorts Programmer and Manager of the Native and Indigenous Program Adam Piron sat down with Film Independent Members to answer questions and clear up a few lingering misconceptions about submitting to Sundance. Here are five things they said won’t help your film get into the festival and five things that will.


Your representation can’t guarantee you a spot in Sundance
Yutani didn’t discourage filmmakers from connecting with agents, managers, sales agents and publicists, but she emphasized that, despite what they may tell you, those people don’t have the power to put a film into the festival.

“I think that there are things that those people can do for your film,” said Yutani. “But as far as getting into the festival, we take their phone calls, we listen to them, but they don’t make the decisions.”

Sending bribes and extras won’t help you
“When I first started programming at Sundance, we used to get all kinds of crazy stuff in the mail,” said Yutani. “We’d get alcohol and chocolates and gift baskets, and those days are sort of over because we have done such a good job of saying that bribes don’t help and extras don’t help.

But Yutani is still a little nostalgic for those days. (She said chocolate cupcakes are her favorite.)

Submitting a DVD instead of digital copy does not give you an advantage
It used to be that submitting a DVD instead of a digital file gave the filmmaker some control over the quality of the image the programmer was seeing. Now it just makes it more likely your disc will be lost in the shuffle. With the recent upgrades that has made, there’s no reason not to submit digitally.

“Withoutabox looks amazing,” said Yutani, “And it also gives you the option of submitting a Vimeo link too.” Yutani said the festival is moving toward a day when all submissions will be online.

Knowing a programmer won’t improve your chances
Again Yutani asserted that it’s not about who you know; it’s about the quality of your film.

“It really is about the work itself,” she said. “We have to reject our friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc., all the time. And it’s not pleasant, but it’s part of the job.”

Being a Sundance alum or lab fellow does not guarantee you a spot
The connections forged by being a filmmaker at the festival or in one of Sundance’s various lab programs are important, but your film still has to measure up to the quality of that year’s crop.

“In fact,” said Yutani, “I think we’re harder on filmmakers who are alums because there is a certain perception that once you’re in, you’re always in. But your film has to be really great in order to get in.”


Again and again Yutani and Piron reiterated: It’s about the quality of your film and nothing else. So what makes a film Sundance-worthy? The programmers were reluctant to be too specific, but they offered a few clues.

Prioritize story over form
“There are so many factors that go into making a great film,” said Yutani. “Sometimes it is a technical thing that catches our eye, but the story you’re telling has to match that.”

Piron recalled a short that he watched early in last year’s selection process that he fell hard for. “It was gorgeous,” said Piron. “But as we passed along, I started to realize that it looked really good, but the story wasn’t there.”

Be original
It’s a hard mandate to follow, but Yutani said she and her fellow programmers are always looking for something they’ve never seen before. “It’s really hard to find films that are completely original and we know that, but a film like Tangerine, for example, I just haven’t seen a film like that before. We were all completely blown away by that.”

Film Independent Fellow Sean Baker’s 2015 Sundance hit follows two transgender prostitutes on a hunt for their disloyal pimp. It was famously shot entirely on an iPhone, but Piron said that wasn’t something the Sundance team learned until after the film was chosen for the festival.

Make a film that sticks with the viewer
Yutani said the films she’s most influenced by are the ones that she’s still thinking about, even days later. “It could be something on the gimmicky side or it could be just powerful storytelling that makes you think about it well after you’ve watched it. And that’s something that I always pay attention to.”

Keep Short Films Short
Whether or not your film sticks with a programmer for days or months is a little bit out of your control. But the length of your film is something you do have a say in.

And Piron said he loves short shorts. “Generally, around 15 minutes is usually what we look for,” he said, “It’s a lot easier to program. If a film does start to get into the 30-minute range, then we have to justify it taking the place of two other shorts.”

Piron said the shorter a film is, the more flexibility he and his team have with where they can place it in a given program or before a feature.

Make ’em laugh
Piron said he and his fellow programmers are always looking for comedic shorts because “there just aren’t enough of them out there.”

When one audience member asked if lighter shorts can function as palate cleansers in the midst of heavier fare, Yutani was thoughtful.

“We aren’t necessarily looking for palette cleansers, but often we need palette cleansers,” she said. “We want to make sure there’s a certain flow to the program, we want to make sure that there’s diversity in that program and sometimes we have a lot of heavy films.”

Last year more than 4,000 feature films and over 8,000 short films were submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. 118 features and 60 shorts were chosen. Yutani, said that ultimately, a lot of great films get left out. “We have to make difficult decisions,” she said. “That’s what our job is about: making difficult decisions.”

Tom Sveen / Film Independent Blogger

September 15th, 2015 • 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Submitting to Sundance: 5 Things That Will Help (and 5 That Won’t)”

  1. Travis Finkle
    September 15, 2015 at 7:52 pm

    Note the use of “does not guarantee you”. Sure, agents, managers, and being an alum don’t “guarantee” any individual film a shot.

    But if you have enough films with agents and studio support and from Sundance Labs, then you can easily fill out an entire program without ever considering other films.

  2. Motherfucker Jones
    September 19, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Hahaha! Is this an onion article? If this is true then how does Yutani explain “Hellions”.

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