Mon 8.25.2014

Submitting to Sundance: Two Festival Programmers Share Their Insight

Sundance Egyptian

Last week, Sundance Film Festival programmers Lisa Ogdie and Kim Yutani stopped by Film Independent to do a Q&A with our members, offering insight into the selection process as well as helpful hints for filmmakers submitting their work. The deadlines for Sundance 2015 are fast approaching (official deadlines are Monday, August 25 for shorts and Friday, August 29 for features; late deadlines, at a slightly higher entry fee, are Monday, September 15 for shorts and Monday, September 29 for features), so check out their tips and then send them your movie!

They started off with some rather discouraging statistics: last year, there were over 4,000 feature films from around the world submitted, and only 121 of them were chosen. Of the 8,000+ short films submitted, only 66 screened at the Festival. “There’s always good stuff that we would love to play that we just don’t have room for,” Ogdie, who programs the shorts, admitted. In the shorts programs, for example, Ogdie explained that they try to go with at least 50% US-produced shorts, as they are an American festival, and that run time is definitely a factor. “Our official rule is under 50 minutes,” she said, “but it’s just a fact that the longer your short is, the harder it is to program.”

Both programmers explained the long process of selection, and you can rest assured, if you submit your film to Sundance, it will be viewed in its entirety and considered on equal footing with every other film there. Yutani broke down the features selection process: they send out the submissions to a highly pre-screened group of pre-screeners, from whom the team of nine programmers receives extensive coverage. “We all read the coverage of the films, even if they’re lower-rated, just to make sure nothing slips through the cracks,” she explained. “The worst thing that could possibly happen is that we don’t see a film or we pass on a film that then goes on to play at another festival and gets attention.” The team of nine shorts programmers split up the submissions, each watching about 1,000, and then watch each other’s top picks, compare notes and discuss. “We watch everything all the way through,” Ogdie assured us, “even all those 50-minute shorts, I watch every minute of them.”

Ogdie and Yutani also wanted to debunk a few myths about screening at Sundance, chief among them the idea that if you know somebody on the inside or have a history with the organization, you’re guaranteed a spot in the Festival program. “[That’s] absolutely not true,” Yutani said, “it’s our job to find the films that we should be showing, and so we don’t give special priority to films that have [a famous] cast or were made by our best friends.”

Ogdie advises to skip providing promotional materials along with your application: “whatever money you’re going to [spend to] make postcards or do whatever, focus on the film with those funds. We don’t really look at them; a lot of times they just get thrown away.” Yutani added, “if you submit a DVD [rather than a link], just write on it with a Sharpie. Don’t create a fancy label, that’ll just create problems.” They really are looking at the film itself above all else and boring packaging can’t make a great movie forgettable just as stunning packaging can’t make a bad movie any better.

For US features to be selected, they pretty much have to be world premieres, unless you’re playing in the highly curated, out-of-competition Spotlight section (you cannot submit to a specific section—that’s entirely up to the programmers). If it’s an international film, it ought to be the international premiere. Work-in-progress or cast-and-crew screenings won’t sully your world premiere status, but if you charge or get significant press for a screening, that could interfere. For shorts, on the other hand, Sundance has no rules regarding premieres.

A lot of filmmakers, frantic to meet the looming Sundance deadlines, send in unfinished products. “I would say that you should try to get the film as close to finished as possible,” Yutani said, but “you don’t have to worry about sound or color correction… We are so used to watching films in a rough cut that we don’t even notice that.” Other than those two elements, however, they advised spending the extra $20 and holding out for the later deadline to get things finished. If you just can’t get it together in time, include notes onscreen explaining that some major scene or effect is missing and what it will be—you can’t be sure they’ll read the cover letter as carefully as they’ll watch the movie.

Yutani said one big problem she sees is movies made from scripts that clearly weren’t ready; she and Ogdie agreed, however, that length is perhaps the biggest issue. “There’s just too much extraneous stuff,” Yutani said, “I’d say try to [submit] the cut that you feel most comfortable with us seeing.” You may send in a second, updated version if you make changes while the selection process is still underway, but there’s no guarantee anyone will watch it.”

Yutani also noted that programmers from all different festivals talk—so if you get rejected and send a very rude email, other festivals will hear about it, too. If you submit your film one year and get rejected, only resubmit the following year if the film has significantly changed to the point where it’s a completely different movie. Also, there’s no need to be strategic or superstitious about exactly when you submit: Yutani recalled one year where the film numbered 00001 was selected for the festival. “It doesn’t matter when you submit,” she reiterated, “Your film will get seen, and it will be treated like all the other films—you just might pay less for your submission fee. But the process is a very fair process.”

The apparent holy grail of festival programming is the relatively short comedy feature. “We’re really depressed by the end of programming season—everyone wants to explore really heavy subjects!” Yutani joked. “We get really excited when we see good comedies, and a short comedy is probably the most versatile film you could possibly make.” When asked how to cater to the programmers’ tastes and what the essential Sundance movie is, Yutani and Ogdie couldn’t really answer. “If it’s a good film from a passionate place, we’ll respond to subject matter that we may have no interest in, and be excited about it,” Ogdie said.

“You have to make the film that you want to make,” Yutani agreed. “People always say ‘what are you looking for?’ and we’re looking for nothing in particular. We’re looking for films to surprise us and impress us. I think that every time we turn a film on, we’re hoping that it’s something that is different and that will grab our attention.”

Mary Sollosi / Film Independent Blogger