Everything Actors + Filmmakers Should Know About the Sundance Film Festival

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival, held every January in Utah, is a near mythic event and the biggest independent film festival in the United States. But before all the big-time name recognition, the festival began as just another regional event, struggling to find a voice among the dry county laws of 1970s Utah. Only after actor Robert Redford’s powerful Sundance Institute took over did industry recognition explode. The fest has since built a reputation for premiering independent films that end up breaking through to a mainstream audience, truly a first of its kind. Distributors, both studio (like Lionsgate) and independent (like A24), often discover these films at Sundance. Bidding wars can ensue as companies vie to launch the next big small film to national recognition.

Last year, premieres of “The Farewell,” “Clemency,” “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” garnered rave reviews; all went on to national distribution. Amazon bought “Late Night” at a record price point, and also scooped up well-received indie “Brittany Runs a Marathon.” Documentaries like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “RGB” (both of which premiered in 2018) also became popular sensations. 

This isn’t a new phenomenon for films screening at Sundance. The festival has been launching careers for years—going back to the Coen brothers first feature “Blood Simple,” which won the Grand Jury prize in 1985.

This year, Sundance runs Jan. 23–Feb. 2 and will screen 118 feature films, as well as shorts, interactive media, and more. Our festival guide covers everything you need to know about the event. Learn the history of the festival, how to submit your own work, and all the details on the prestigious awards.

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When did the Sundance Film Festival start?

Before it became known as the industry juggernaut it is today, the event started as the Utah/United States Film Festival. It’s goal was to showcase American films in general but more specifically, local independent filmmaking. Located in Salt Lake City, the event failed to take off in a major way. Utah has strict laws regarding alcohol, which may have made it difficult to hold a party up to industry standards.

By 1981, the festival had relocated to Park City, an area in Utah covered in snow—and abiding by looser liquor laws. With the schedule moved to January, the festival could advertise both great skiing and film screenings. The event continued to gain steam until Redford’s Sundance Institute took over in 1985. The event was expanded into a 10-day showcase for both American and international independent documentary and narrative films. Within a few years, the festival became well known for screening films from up-and-coming directors, including those taking part in the Sundance Institute’s director’s lab. 

What is Sundance’s purpose?

The Sundance Institute was created by Robert Redford and his associates to supply resources for emerging independent filmmakers in the U.S., and the film festival has become an extension of this premise: its focus remains on independent films from emerging voices. The festival is now known for showcasing groundbreaking films and early works, often debut projects, from directors who go on to become household names. (World cinema is also represented in separate categories, with a similar focus on independent visions.)

The Sundance Institute continues activities beyond the festival, as well, holding additional screenings and programs throughout the year. At the heart of its mission is the still-active director’s lab. This resource allows new filmmakers to work with established industry artists to develop films. The program gained recognition with Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” which went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The lab is often credited for helping to launch the independent film scene of the 1990s, with film premieres like Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” drawing audience and industry attention.

Who selects the films that screen at Sundance?

Sundance screens a number of invite-only films in their “Spotlight” series. But the majority of their screenings come from open submissions. Programmers from the festival choose from this pool of applicants to fill their roster of categories, listed below.

How can I submit a film at Sundance?

Although submissions for Sundance 2020 are closed, applications for 2021 open May 1, 2020. Sundance accepts submissions in several categories:

  • U.S. Narrative Feature Films
  • U.S. Documentary Feature Films
  • International Narrative Feature Films
  • International Documentary Feature Films
  • U.S. Short Films
  • International Short Films
  • Episodic Content

The festival also accepts innovative works, including VR/AR, media installations, live cinematic performances, and more for its New Frontier Program. All films might also be considered for out-of-screening categories, such as the midnight movie series.

Early bird submission fees are $40 for shorts, episodic, and New Frontier projects, and $65 for U.S. and international feature films; prices gradually increase for official and late submission cutoffs, capping at $110 for late-submission domestic and international features. 

What awards does Sundance present?

Sundance screens films in competition in six categories: U.S. Dramatic, U.S. Documentary, World Cinema Dramatic, World Cinema Documentary, Short Film, and NEXT. 

Films that win the Grand Jury Prizes in each category generate a ton of buzz, which can push smaller projects and emerging voices into wider distribution and into signing onto larger studio films in the future, setting them on the path to becoming household names. When small-budget films like the Oscar-nominated “Precious,” which won both Grand Jury and Audience for its category, walk away with the Grand Jury Prize, they gain much needed visibility when they might otherwise struggle to find an audience.

But Sundance has plenty of awards beyond the Grand Jury prizes. Each category is eligible for directing awards and special Grand Jury Awards. Also, the NEXT category highlights innovative approaches to independent filmmaking that  “shape the next wave of cinema.” Audiences then vote on their favorite films, resulting in awards for each category and a best of the festival award.

Sundance screens plenty of films out of competition, too, especially from emerging or new filmmakers. And you can’t forget the New Frontier projects, which are also out-of-competition.

What are the 2020 Sundance award categories?

Films will compete for the following awards:

U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize
U.S. Dramatic Audience Award
U.S. Dramatic Directing
U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize
U.S. Documentary Audience Award
U.S. Documentary Directing
World Cinema Dramatic Grand Jury Prize
World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award
World Cinema Dramatic Directing
World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize
World Cinema Documentary Audience Award
World Cinema Documentary Directing
Short Film Grand Jury Prize
Short Film Jury Award: U.S. Fiction
Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction
Short Film Jury Award: Nonfiction
Short Film Jury Award: Animation
NEXT Audience Award
NEXT Innovator Award
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize
Festival Favorite Award (Audience Award)
Sundance Institute/NHK Award for the next generation of emerging directors

Every year, additional awards in each category are given Special Jury Prizes. These awards, including the U.S. Dramatic Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, recognize films for excellence in craft, such as cinematography, acting, or originality.

Check out the winners from last year.

How often have Sundance winners and premieres gone on to win major film awards?

Films screening in competition at Sundance do sometimes go on to win major awards. “Precious” screened at Sundance in 2009, winning several of the fest’s biggest honors, including the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category. The film went on to earn six nominations at the Academy Awards, winning best actress in a supporting role and best adapted screenplay. Likewise, 2006’s “Little Miss Sunshine” premiered at Sundance and got four Oscar nods, with two wins, and was a box office hit. More recent Oscar nominated films that premiered at Sundance include “Brooklyn” starring Academy favorite Soairse Ronan and “Call Me By Your Name,” starring another young Oscar darling, Timothée Chalamet.

But more than awards, Sundance is an excellent predictor of emerging talent. In addition to the Coen Brothers, directors such as Damien Chazelle, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Richard Linklater all got their start at the festival. Actors, too, can get a big push from being in a film at the festival—for instance, Ryan Gosling’s career effectively launched after appearing in 2006’s “Half Nelson” at Sundance. It’s easy to see why: 2018’s festival drew 125,000 attendees, a great way to create buzz among the public and the industry.

When and where does Sundance happen?

The Sundance Film Festival takes place every year in late January, often ending within the first few days of February. Screenings take place at three locations in Utah: Park City, Salt Lake City, and at the Sundance Resort. The resort, which lends its name to both the festival and the Sundance Institute, is named for owner Robert Redford’s performance as the Sundance Kid. Redford purchased the 5,000 acres of Utah wilderness in 1969 after visiting the area on a cross-country motorcycle trip. Besides the festival and the Institute, the area is home to a wilderness preserve and a ski resort.

The film festival also screens select films around the U.S. to increase their reach and exposure. But the major portion of the festival remains in Utah. There are also a few spin-off festivals, including Sundance London and Sundance Hong Kong.

How can I attend?

After a short presale to members and Utah locals, passes go on sale to the public in October. There are several tiers of passes that give wide access to the festival, ranging from all access to an entire program of screenings at a particular theater. Passes require a photo credential and registration.

Additionally, ticket packages and individual tickets are available. Ticket selection for packages starts Jan. 7. Individual tickets can be purchased online as they become available. The physical box office opens on Jan. 21, where individual tickets are sold. Pass holders can pick up their credential from there as well.

Want to get a ticket to a sold-out screening? Don’t worry: Sundance has an online waitlist system. Register on their waitlist website and sign up two hours before the screening time. Get in line more than 30 minutes before the show and find out whether you got a seat through the website or a downloadable app.

The terms of the various packages, passes, and tickets, including limits on purchases, are available on their website. Sundance also has a whole section about coming to the fest, which includes maps, shuttles, and car rental recommendations. They also offer package deals for travel.

Ultimately, if you’re looking for a place to see up-and-coming talent (or a great place to be the up-and-coming talent), the Sundance Film Festival isn’t a bad place to set your sights!

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s film audition listings!

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