Programs Thu 8.22.2013

Want to Get Your Film Into Sundance? The Festival’s Programmers Reveal Secrets to Successful Submissions

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 protected]. 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

  • Jaded as F

    Sundance makes money via submission fee. If connections did matter and names did matter and if first-time applicants had less of a chance, why would they admit that to the majority of people that make up their submission fees?
    Just entertain that hypothetical. Then ask yourself how obnoxious, yet connected, filmmakers win “Best Director” for critically panned movies. Ask yourself how come Sundance Institute writers, directors, producers are always overrepresented by the fest.
    Submit to Sundance. Play the lottery. But be real.

    • Jeremy T

      Preach it, brother.

    • YourFilmsProbablySuck

      I’m sorry but if a film sucks so much that it can’t get into Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca it just stinks like hell…no one can tell me any different.

      • john may

        That’s funny…but I hope it wasn’t serious….

  • Darious

    A Youtube channel just started covering that very issue. The real odds of getting into Sundance and the numbers behind the reasoning.

  • It’s hard to take this article seriously when so so many of the films Sundance screens are only due to connections. Films that have no business being there. Good grief, the Project Greenlight fiasco is proof positive. That film was a bore and so it took the spot away from something worthy. Time and time again big name actors somehow get their little film in. Wonder why!

    • Justin R

      Good point. “Stolen Summer” was not about being good, it was about who represented it.

  • RagingRoy

    I aspire to get film into the Sundance Film Festival. I thank you for your suggestions and will consider it whole-heartedly.

  • john may

    I actually recommend to other new film makers that they Do Not Submit to Sundance. Film festivals are mostly a waste of the film makers meager remaining resources. Who needs a lottery when you can use the funds to support your own film instead of their parties?

    • GreatFilmsRule

      Festivals “agenda” is to discover great films and showcase them to critics, producers, agents, etc….but if you’re not making great films then you are better off hawking them yourself out of the back of your van…or your stellar vimeo site or whatever…lol

    • Smithers

      My feature was accepted at a previous SXSW out of the slush pile, and I can guarantee that this is really bad advice. Festivals, especially big festivals, help tremendously. If you get into one, you will get into 30 more easily. Sales agents, and distributors will come to you, and everyone in the film industry will take you seriously as a filmmaker. That cannot be said for films that self distribute online.

      • John May

        For the record, I’m not suggesting that film makers not submit to any film festivals, I’m suggesting they do not submit to Sundance, SXSW and the like. For the record, our film won an award at one International Film Festival. At another, we were ripped off by the festival who claimed they never received the film but did happen to cash the check that was With The Film.

        Your film made it into SXSW, but I wonder how many other films along the same quality that year did not. That’s anecdotal evidence that the festival run as a whole makes sense for most film makers.

        And for the record, a lot of these festivals’ agendas is to throw themselves a big party at the film makers entry fee expense. It makes them feel important. I should know, I know someone who has a big film festival.

        We did get something out of our festival experience so don’t get me wrong. I just think there are a lot of film makers out there taking the wrong advice about film festivals. Doing a Hail’O Mary for these festivals in my opinion is the wrong move. It drains limited resources.

        But, all in all, I’m happy. Our strategy has paid off and we are collecting the bulk of monies received on our film. Someone should be so lucky going through a distributor – Good Luck There but that’s another matter.

        • Hey,

          John this is a very interesting opinion. What is the other option except for festivals for something like a short. For me I invested in a short for 2 reasons.

          I do not have much cinematic quality stuff, most of it is more video / tv aesthetic. So I wanted a piece that could show off my ability and lead to an agent or even a manager for a writer/director.

          So one, I needed better examples, and two, I would like to get representation. Making money off a short is not happening. So what are the other strategies that you allude to?


      • Hudson

        DO THE MATH: Sundance receives 12000 film every festival, and the article says that they retain 18 programmers: counting the shorts that’s between 400 and 670 films per programmer in less than 6 months. How do you think they do that? They Don’t. A filmmaker calculated that even if they watched all the films your chance will still be 0.02%. Sundance is NOT an indie film place anymore. Stop dreaming and DON’T APPLY.

    • neil

      You are giving bad advice. You sound bitter.

      • john may

        If your film is decent you should be able to make some rounds at some regional festivals at very minimal cost. There is absolutely no reason to submit it to places like Sundance, Unless – you have some type of connections. Otherwise, it’s a drain on resources. If I sound bitter, it’s because I was given very poor advice by “so-called” seasoned professionals. That’s money that could have been spent more effectively elsewhere. Now I know better. If you’ve made money in films Neil, great. Otherwise, you don’t know what youre talking about.

        • A Filmmaker

          I have to completely disagree with you here. I got my first feature into Sundance with ZERO connections. It was screened in the NEXT category — which is specifically designed for the films some of the other commenters here claim Sundance doesn’t play. Other films in my category also got in without any connections. Playing Sundance altered my career and the trajectory of my film. If I had listened to your advice I would still be waiting tables.

  • Mazza

    Im sure connections count.. I’m sorry as much as I love the duplass bros I’m still baffled as to how This is John made selection not only that, the fact that their short film was selected is what catapulted them to fame. So yeah for me the whole “connection” thing I take with a grain of sat.

  • Julie Leon

    I’d love to see “Truth Be Told” make the Sundance.

  • DLaRosa

    Sundance stopped being an advocate for indie artists years ago (even Redford is disappointed with the direction the festival has taken in the last decade). They are all about the celebrity-fun fest and who wears the better scarf. Having spoken to people first hand most of these “recommendations” are a polished and a glorified reality of what this festival stands for and is about. The only thing that is true is that “Sundance is not the end of the road”. Festivals in general are being seen as the money making opportunities that they are…not the promotion of new talent that they were initially created to be.

  • I wouldn’t submit a feature to Sundance unless it had a notable celebrity in it. Sure they’re trying to showcase new talent, but new talent with a potential audience.

    I’d submit a short film to Sundance, however.

  • david

    I have just entered my 1st Feature Film to all Festivals, big and small. Just entered 2 Festivals in Euerope and non still here in the US. My Feature does NOT have any known actors and it a low budget Indie. I researched completely every single Festival, to see what Films entered int he past Festivals and who were the main actors. Sundance, SXSW, Tibecca, etc, all have had known actors in the movies. So to answer the question, it is a matter of not only who you know, but what important actors you cast in your Films. Indie Film Fest, are no longer Indie…Indie now carries actors like Mathew Mcconaughey and other big names…so when you send to Festivals, see what past Films have been Selected and if yours fits that Selection.

  • I used to look forward to seeing what was going to be coming out at Sundance each year, but it’s not the same as it once was. It’s definitely moved more toward mainstream type movies, instead of the indy films we used to enjoy. Sad really. Hope it can get back to it’s roots.