Submitting to festivals can be a daunting process—especially when you’re aiming at the internationally renowned Sundance Film Festival, which received 12,000 submissions last year vying for a select number of coveted slots. With this year’s deadlines fast approaching (August 26 for shorts; August 30 for features), Film Independent asked Sundance programmers Kim Yutani and Lisa Ogdie to give us the scoop on how the process works and tips to help filmmakers give their films a fighting chance. Yutani, who first came to Sundance while working on Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation, and Ogdie, who learned the ropes through seasonal work before transitioning to programming at SFF, sat down with FIND’s Paul Cowling to share advise and dispel misconceptions about applying to Sundance. Here are the top five take-aways.
1. Focus on the film.
What is the most important part of the submission package? Do press materials make a major difference to programmers? Yutani and Ogdie can’t emphasize enough that a director’s focus should be on the final film and not on supplementary materials. Most of the paperwork gets separated from the actual film or discarded during processing. Don’t waste time with excessive packaging, DVD design, or elaborate credits, says Yutani. If you’re submitting a hard copy using Withoutabox’s Secure Online Screener system, be sure to test your films and provide a backup link to a password-protected Vimeo or YouTube video online. If you’re submitting a short film, keep in mind that longer shorts (more than 25 minutes) are more difficult to program since Sundance likes to screen six or seven films in each shorts program and keep total running times between 90-100 minutes.
2. First-timers do stand a chance.
First-time applicants, take heart. While some think that having close ties to the Festival equals an automatic invite, think again. Having connections doesn’t give you a guarantee. “If you know someone, you might get a personal rejection letter,” Ogdie says. Even having a sales rep or distributor doesn’t serve as an advantage, says Ogdie, adding that they have “so many relationships with people who rep films that it would be impossible for us to take everything they present to us.” Sundance alumni shouldn’t expect special treatment either. While Sundance does keep in close contact with alums and their current projects, programmers can “almost be harder on those films,” according to Odgie “because then they’re taking up a slot for someone who’s a fresh new talent and someone we’ve never heard of before that we want to introduce to the Sundance family.”
3. Premiere requirements vary.
When it comes to world premieres, Sundance is more lenient with shorts that have already played at a festival or even online. However, programmers are stricter when it comes to features. All U.S. Competitions slots are required to be world premieres. Nevertheless, Sundance’s Park City at Midnight and Spotlight sections, which in the past have featured prominent films such as Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012) and Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010), do not have to be premieres. If another festival accepts your film and its dates are before Sundance, make sure to inform programmers by contacting them at email@example.com. While they may not be able to provide a definitive answer on whether your film’s been accepted, they can often let filmmakers know what your chances are so you can make the most informed decision on what’s best for your film.
4. Your film will get the attention it deserves.
A filmmaker’s greatest fear is that your film won’t get the attention it deserves by a festival screening committee. However, Yutani assures that as Sundance has grown, so has its programming staff. The Festival retains eight features programmers and ten shorts programmers to accommodate all the submissions. In addition, they rely on trusted industry professionals as pre-screeners to analyze and rate features before passing them along to the programming staff. How can you be sure programmers are motivated to be meticulous and watch films from start to finish? Yutani promises that it’s of prime importance to their dedicated team, especially since “the worst thing you can do as a programmer is to pass on a film and not give it the careful attention you should have and then it turns up at another festival and breaks out there.” Furthermore, if there is an oversight, she adds, programmers will return to their records and look to see who watched the film, so there’s always a level of personal accountability involved.
5. Remember, Sundance is not the end of the road.
If your film isn’t accepted at Sundance this year, it’s important to keep perspective and act graciously. Avoid burning bridges with the programming staff since they can also be your greatest advocates. Sundance does, in fact, accept resubmissions as long as filmmakers have made significant changes to the new version. Yutani also reminds filmmakers that, “there are so many great festivals out there. I know a lot of people set their sights on Sundance, [but] it isn’t the only festival that can help you and help your career and be a great place for you to show your film.” The festival circuit is such a close-knit community that if Sundance programmers see a film that has a lot of promise but doesn’t quite make it into the lineup, they will gladly pass it along and recommend it to colleagues at other leading festivals, including Film Independent’s Los Angeles Film Festival.
By Laura Swanbeck / Guest Blogger