How to Get Your Film Into Sundance
Art and Experience:
Sundance Film Festival alumni and a festival programmer dive into what it takes to be a filmmaker for the lauded festival.
This post was written by Meagan Keane.
Founded in the 1980s by legendary actor Robert Redford, the Sundance Film Festival is renowned as one of the largest and most prestigious independent film festivals in the world. Over the years, films such as Paris is Burning, Precious, Waiting for “Superman,” and Minari have made their mark on the entertainment world after being awarded with the coveted Grand Jury Prize.
Many filmmakers dream about the chance to bring their art to wider audiences and catch their big breaks at Sundance. But what does it take for your film to be selected for Sundance?
Adobe, a longtime sponsor of the Sundance Film Festival, recently held a special event virtual panel that posed that question to a group of film pros. Director Sam Feder joined producer Amy Scholder to discuss their film, Disclosure, a 2020 Sundance film now available on Netflix that documents the history of transgender depictions in film and television. Christopher Makoto Yogi shared his experiences as the director, editor, and writer of I Was a Simple Man, which debuted at Sundance in 2021. Additionally, Dilcia Barrera, feature film programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, shared an insider’s perspective on the selection process.
Over the course of an hour, the panelists in the five-part How to Get Your Film Into Sundance: Filmmakers Panel talked about everything from what inspired them to enter the film industry to how they keep ideas organized during a project. The discussion led to some great tips that can help any filmmaker create films ready for the Sundance Film Festival.
Focus on the film.
Dilcia: A lot of people think that at Sundance we have some mysterious way of choosing films. But honestly, it’s all about the content. We’re looking at the story and the passion, authenticity, and honesty that filmmakers bring to the table. Both Sam and Christopher are great examples because both of their films are very personal stories that come from a place of reality, but still bring incredible artistry to the screen.
Be true to yourself and don’t give up.
Sam: I don’t think I’m the only one who thought that if I just got into Sundance, then I’ve made it. But I made two films and didn’t get in. And I started to take it really personally. It made me doubt myself. I did a lot of work to realize that while making it to Sundance can be amazing for your film and your career, it also doesn’t have any implications on who you are, your work, or your future. There are so many amazing films that aren’t going to get in every year.
Christopher: I had to learn to let those thoughts go, too. The only thing I would concentrate on was, do I like this movie? Am I proud of it? That’s the only goal, because if I start worrying about what programmers at Sundance or Berlin or wherever think about my movie, I start making decisions that go against my gut. If you start listening to all those voices, you can really get off track.
Dilcia: I was a short film programmer for years. It’s our biggest area; we get about 9,000 submissions a year. Some people think that with so many entries, it really doesn’t matter if they submit their film. But I want to say that it does matter because once you submit a film to Sundance, you get into our system. We start to track your career and your progress as a filmmaker, and when we see people who are really growing, we’ll pay closer attention to what they’re doing. It’s a good strategy to get on the right trajectory for your film festival life.
Build a community.
Sam: I learned over the years how important it is to build a team. With Disclosure, we almost had this grassroots community and these relationships that Amy and I had been building for 20 years. Finding people who are like-minded and share the same passion for telling stories helps keep you grounded and bring your work to the world.
Amy: I think those relationships behind the scenes are what made our interviews so astonishing, because there was so much trust in the room. We valued every single person on set.
Christopher: I love the collaborative aspect of filmmaking. I love being with other people. I’m constantly showing stuff to people, asking them to tell me what’s working and what’s not. I’m lucky that I have these collaborators to bounce ideas off of because otherwise I’m just sort of pounding my head against the wall.
Take advantage of resources.
Dilcia: The reality of film is that it’s not just passion, it’s also about getting yourself into the right circumstances. I really encourage people to take advantage of all of the resources that they can find, like applying for grants or fellowships. Find people who will help guide you when you’re ready to make a movie.
Christopher: As part of the Screenwriters Lab program, I was really grateful for the support of the Sundance Institute. They were the first ones to say that they believed in me. They were cheerleaders, supporters, and if I needed an introduction, they could help me with that. It was still a hard sell and it took seven years of trying to get people to see my vision and what the film can bring to the world.
Always be working.
Sam: One of the biggest pieces of advice is something I got from a grad school professor who said, “Always be working.” I didn’t get it at first because of course I’m always trying to work. He said that even when you’re on the train, take a video of people’s feet, be engaged with what’s around you. There’s so much inspiration everywhere you go, and I’ve always taken that to heart. It’s a good way to look at the world and look at myself in the world.