The Do's and Don'ts of Submitting to Sundance

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The deadlines for next year’s Sundance Film Festival hit at the end of the month, with short films due by Aug. 25 and features and documentaries due Aug. 29. Filmmakers desperately uploading their work will have plenty of company. Last year, Sundance received 8,161 submissions for the 66 spots in its short film category, and 4,057 submissions for features and documentaries, which has between 110-120 spots. While those numbers can be discouraging, there are ways to make your work standout, according to a panel of Sundance programmers convened Aug. 19 by Film Independent, a non-profit group that champions independent film.

DO make a good film.
This one should go without saying, but it seems that many people get hung up on whether they have the right connections. A common misconception about Sundance is that the programmers favor filmmakers they know, Sundance LAB participants, or alumni.

“One of the most common myths that you hear about about Sundance is that you have to know someone to get in, or that you have to have an agent or a manager who knows one of us,” Kim Yutani, a programmer for the festival, said at the forum. “It’s absolutely not true.”

Lisa Ogdie, a shorts programmer for Sundance, said all submissions get a fade-in-through-credits viewing. “We watch everything all the way through,” she said.

DO familiarize yourself with the submission requirements.
Submission requirements vary by category. All U.S. competition films must be world premieres, but non-competition films and the short submissions don’t. Instructions on how to submit your film are available on the Sundance website and detailed information about submission categories and requirements can be found in the Sundance FAQ document.

DON’T bother with packaging or promotional materials.
Sundance requires submissions via the site Withoutabox. Yutani cautions against stick-on labels. “If you submit a DVD, just write on it with a Sharpie, you don’t have to create a fancy label,” she said.

Ogdie added: “Any other materials, I’d say don’t bother.” Instead of spending on promotional materials, “focus on the film with those funds, we don’t really look at them, a lot of times they get thrown away,” she said.

DON’T panic.
Programmers are used to seeing submissions that don’t have a final sound mix or haven’t been color corrected. "Watching films in the rough and fine cut state,” said Yutani, "it’s not an issue for us."

Programmers understand that these elements will be in place by the time the film screens. Still, any missing elements like visual effects should be explained on screen as they're meant to happen to give the programmers the most accurate experience of the final product.

DO keep it short.
Take the time you need to tell your story, but Ogdie noted that, when it comes to short films, “The longer your short is, the harder it is to program.”

DON’T try to imitate.
Stay true to your voice as a filmmaker. Yutani finds that “films that come from a passionate and sincere place are the films that we really respond to.”

DO make comedies.
Yutani joked about the programming process being depressing due to many indie filmmakers’ penchant for exploring the dramatic. Meanwhile, Ogdie and her team try to keep the shorts program at 90 minutes, balancing drama and comedy. “It’s a lot like making a mix tape,” she said.

DON’T get discouraged.
With so many submissions for a small number of screening spots, there are a lot of wonderful films that don’t make it in, the programmers said. Don’t despair if you miss out on Park City this year. In fact, your rejection could lead to other opportunities: Sundance programmers sometimes make recommendations to programmers at other festivals for films that don’t find a place in their final line-up.

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