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John Nein

Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer John Nein shares the festival’s programming philosophy and myths

With the Sundance Film Festival submission deadline almost upon us (Monday, Aug. 27), Film Independent offered our members an extended Q&A with Sundance Film Festival Senior Programmer John Nein and Shorts Programmer Mike Plante.

They discussed everything from the festival’s programming philosophy to what type of films they look for, while dispelling some myths and suggesting do’s and don’ts when submitting your project.

Film Selection:

With over 4,000 feature films submitted annually, the programming team has to be incredibly selective to narrow their choices down to just over 100 final selections. “Yes, we do watch your film all the way through!” Nein declared, setting the record straight.

So, what is the programming team looking for? Projects that are ahead of the curve. “We’re all looking for something we haven’t seen before,” Nein said. However, “we don’t have to all like your film in order for it to get into the festival. It’s a collegial process. Being an outlier can work. Who wants to be the programmer or festival who misses a great project?”

If an aesthetic or genre doesn’t match with a programmer’s taste, they will pass it along to someone else who may like it in order to get a different perspective. “We try to build in ways to double-check.” When making decisions, “we do not put the best 16 films in a program. We put the best program together that we can,” Nein explained. The goal is to bring diversity across all fronts of the festival and to adequately support all of the films.

Story Quality:

The quality of your story and the way you tell it is more important than the quality of the format in which you submit your film. According to Plante, “we watch mostly rough cuts” and consider works in progress all of the time. In regards to DVD screeners vs. online screeners, it matters not to the programmers. They are both convenient and “the quality is not a huge factor. We know your film will look better on a big screen,” said Nein. Submit something you’re happy with.

Timing (or, Don’t Rush):

Sundance official selection

If you submit in the spring, your film will not be forgotten. “We watch the films as they come in, shortlist them, and then re-watch them with the entire group of programmers later in the year,” Plante said. Don’t rush your film just to meet the Sundance deadline.

“There is a pressure that a lot of people feel to submit to Sundance,” Nein said. “It can be good because it can push you. But it can also be bad if you rush to make the deadline and hurt your film as a result.”

Temp Tracks:

Anytime you submit your film without finalizing all of your licensing, you’re taking a risk. In regards to legal issues, you must accept all legal responsibility if the film is accepted and plays in a festival. Out of all of the Sundance submissions, “Jon Brion was the most temp-tracked composer last year,” Nein said. If your indie film features songs by the Rolling Stones, “we know that it’s temp. We have an odd relationship with temp tracks because we have to assume that somehow you will find a way to make that film good without the temp track.” Be careful not to get too attached to your temp track.

On Shorts:

Films with running times of less than 50 minutes are classified as shorts. Fiction shorts generally run between 5 – 15 min. Documentary shorts may run a little longer; up to 30-45 min. Plante recommends editing your project down to the intended final length (or as close to it as possible) before submitting. “If your film should be 5 minutes long and the running time is 15 minutes, that can really hurt your chances of getting in.” He also adds that if you’re submitting a short, “you do not need more than 30 seconds of credits.” Don’t have long credits leading into a short film, leave that for the features.

Sundance has no premiere requirement for shorts. Other festivals will, though (Tribeca, for example). “We will play stuff that is already on the internet. Shorts need all the help they can get,” Plante said.

—Lee Jameson, Film Education Coordinator

Once you’ve finished submitting to Sundance, get your questions answered about the Fall festival circuit too — tickets are free for Film Independent members!


August 21st, 2012 • 10 Comments


  1. Jake
    August 29, 2012 at 4:19 am

    the real question is – what is the percentage of the official selection that is chosen from the bulk submissions?

    i think you’ll see that number being well below 10%. if that is the case, the revenue from the bulk submissions would dive because filmmakers would stop wasting their time and money on this, and the other primary festivals.

    • James
      September 20, 2012 at 2:42 pm

      in fact, it’s 2.5%, according to 1st answer.

      • ufoclub1977
        July 9, 2013 at 8:43 am

        I think the question meant what percentage of regular indie spec submissions makes up the program vs invited filmmakers, legacy/connected filmmakers, Hollywood making an indie film, or Sundance Institute films

  2. TracyMartin
    May 7, 2013 at 7:55 am

    Thanks for the disclosure…I’m feeling empowered all over again.

  3. Duckfeak44
    October 1, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Age requirements?

  4. Frances R
    March 27, 2014 at 7:40 pm

    I’ve hope the submission or application process to Sundance Film Festival 2015 is more fair than what I’ve heard.

    First, many people tell me that Sundance only selects from previous winners or from agents they deal with which is totally unfair and undemocratic – and would violate every artistic principle which we all stand for.

    Second, I heard horror stories of filmmakers who had their movies on pirated sites as soon as they submitted to these film festivals – I truly hope all the films are secure and burned after watching. This would be a major lawsuit!

    • Webmaster
      March 28, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Yes, the process is more fair than what you’ve heard. We know of several examples of first-time filmmakers who get in without inside connections.

      • October 2, 2014 at 2:45 am

        I have entered my film Constitution Of The Dead for Sundance 2015. With such an original story and the way that it is presented I think that we have a good chance of getting in without any inside connections. So for those of You who question the process being fair. Just have what it takes and never give up!

  5. October 2, 2014 at 2:38 am

    I was told by a Festival Programer prior to sending in my film Constitution Of The Dead for 2015 festival, that I can track the progress of my film using the tracking number. Where can I find the link to follow the progress of my film?

    • FilmIndependent
      October 3, 2014 at 10:39 am

      Good question. You probably want to check in with Sundance on that one.

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