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Why Sundance, America’s largest independent film festival, matters

The annual festival in Park City, Utah, is where scrappy little indie films go to make it big.

The Egyptian Theater marquee reads “Sundance Film Festival” in Park City, Utah.
The chilly, glossy, always surprising Sundance Film Festival kicks off on January 23, 2020, in Park City, Utah.
Jill Oreschel / Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

What do The Farewell, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, American Factory, and Honeyland all have in common? They’re all movies that made waves last year — and all four also premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, the most prestigious film festival in the United States and one of the most important pieces of the movie industry puzzle.

Every year in mid-January, a mass migration to Utah happens: Critics, filmmakers, industry people, and celebrities head to the mountainous ski resort town Park City, about 30 miles from Salt Lake City, where the annual festival — a 10-day marathon of screenings, panels, parties, and more — takes place.

Sundance is a lot of things: an exhibition for the most exciting independently produced films from the US and around the world; an early predictor of movie trends; a networking hub for filmmakers and other talent looking to break into the movie business; a forum for discussing issues and groundbreaking technologies that affect film and media; a place to spot celebrities in puffy jackets and furry boots; and a palate cleanser after the hectic fall movie season. An estimated 122,000 people attended the festival in 2019 — only a slight dip from 2018’s 125,000 attendees — which makes it the largest festival devoted to independent filmmaking in the United States.

But for the vast majority of people who don’t spend the year breathlessly tracking trends in cinema, the idea of “Sundance” is a bit hazy: What is it? Where did it come from? Why does it matter?

Sundance straddles two worlds: the big-name, award-winning movie world and the scrappy indie film world. So paying attention to the festival is a good way to catch the first inklings of Oscar buzz and to get a sense of the issues and topics that are motivating filmmakers and audiences.

Put simply, for people who love movies, Sundance is one of the most exciting events of the year. There’s the feeling in the air that any movie could be a breakout hit, any talent could become the next star. Anything can happen in Park City.

Sundance helps independent films find an audience, both at the festival and after it

Films selected to play at Sundance must be independently produced, and they are usually available for acquisition at the festival.

Put simply, an independent film is a movie that’s produced and funded outside the major film studio system. Whereas big blockbusters and major theatrical releases are often created, funded, and distributed by studios — think Paramount, Sony, Disney, and Warner Bros. — independent films get their start with independent production companies or filmmakers who secure enough investment (or invest their own capital) to get the film off the ground.

But producing a film is only half the battle; it still needs to get in front of an audience, and that’s where festivals like Sundance and distributors enter the picture. Distributors attend the festival to “shop” for films they can acquire for future release in theaters and/or on streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. When an independent film gets selected for Sundance, its chances of being acquired by a studio (like Lionsgate or Sony Pictures Classics) or an independent distributor (like A24 or Neon) go way up.

In recent years, streaming companies like Netflix, Amazon Studios, and Hulu, have had deep pockets for acquisition at Sundance. Those companies have also been turning to producing their own original content in recent years, which resulted in none of them acquiring any films at the festival in 2018. But they all acquired several films, particularly documentaries, in 2019. Industry insiders will be watching closely in 2020, since a number of new streaming services from companies with a lot of money to spend, including Disney, Apple, and HBO, may be looking to diversify their offerings with Sundance acquisitions.

Some Sundance films are acquired before the festival even starts, but many films that play at the festival are hoping to generate enough notice and buzz to get sold — hopefully to a distributor that can put enough marketing dollars behind them to translate to box office returns and even awards season buzz.

But first, a film has to make it into Sundance. Filmmakers must submit their work ahead of time to the festival’s panel of programmers for consideration, and if they’re lucky, their film will be selected to play at the festival to press and industry as well as ticketed audience members (usually in separate screenings).

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in in Downhill, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020.
Sundance Institute

The chances of being selected are slim. In 2020, 3,853 feature-length films were submitted for consideration (along with 10,397 short films). According to Sundance, 1,698 of the feature film submissions were from the US, and 2,155 were international. Ultimately, only 128 feature films were selected to play at the festival, 107 of which were world premieres (meaning they hadn’t been shown anywhere else before).

Sundance isn’t just about buying and selling movies

Since its beginning, the festival has also featured a competition, with a jury of experienced filmmakers, festival directors, and experts awarding prizes to movies playing at the festival. (Disclosure: I was on the festival’s US Documentary jury in 2019.) In all, nearly 30 prizes are given out; some of the more high-profile prizes, like the Grand Jury Prize, help films gain a foothold with audiences and with other festival programmers. (These are the accolades you often see plastered across the posters for hopeful arthouse hits.) Audiences also fill out ballots to vote on audience prizes.

But there’s more to Sundance than buying, selling, and grabbing awards. The festival also programs movies — and sometimes non-movies — that are there not to compete, but rather to cater to the movie lovers who attend. For instance, in 2020 the festival is hosting a documentary and special performance of Max Richter’s Sleep. There are special events and screenings of films that premiered at other festivals. And there are musical performances, panel discussions, and star-studded conversations, most of which are aimed at filmmakers and others in the industry.

Dick Johnson appears in Dick Johnson is Dead by Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson), which will compete in the U.S. Documentary Competition Sundance in 2020.
John Wakayama Carey/Sundance Institute

Lots of other things happen at Sundance outside the theater, which are easy to spot while walking up and down Park City’s Main Street. Brands like Chase Sapphire, Acura, and Stella Artois sponsor the festival and set up shop in locations all over town, with showrooms, stages, and spots for festivalgoers to sit and have a cup of coffee. Journalists interview filmmakers and review films. Celebrities and filmmakers pose for pictures on the red carpet. And there are parties for everything — to celebrate film premieres, achievements, brands, and production companies — most of which are only open to invited guests (though a contingent of people always show up hoping to sneak in and spot celebrities).

You could go skiing, too, but who has the time?

Sundance started as a way to promote American independent film

The Sundance Film Festival is actually just one program put on by the Sundance Institute, which also sponsors and supports festival events and programs to bolster independent film throughout the year. But the festival is by far the Sundance Institute’s best-known program, so the name “Sundance” is usually synonymous with the big event.

The institute maintains a fascinating timeline about the festival’s history, which is a great source of information about its long and storied history.

But here is the tl;dr: Sundance was founded in 1978. At the time, it was held in Salt Lake City and called the Utah/US Film Festival. The idea was to attract filmmakers to Utah, and to promote American independent filmmaking. The first chair of the festival was Robert Redford — who generally gets credit for founding Sundance — and he remains involved with the festival to this day, speaking during its opening press conference and frequently appearing in other capacities.

2018 Sundance Film Festival - Day One Press Conference
Robert Redford, the president and founder of the Sundance Institute, at the day one press conference of the 2018 SUndance Film Festival.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Over time, the festival has experienced a number of changes. The biggest came in 1981, when the festival moved from Salt Lake City to Park City and shifted its dates from summer to January. Then in 1984, the Sundance Institute — which had been founded separately — took over producing the festival, which by then was called the US Film Festival.

Finally, in 1991, the event was rebranded as the Sundance Film Festival, named for Redford’s character in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Since then, most of the changes have been programmatic: the addition of a shorts program, new interest in technologies like digital and virtual reality, and the launch of the World Cinema Competition.

The festival’s profile continued to rise thanks to some major films that got their start at Sundance, like Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), which would go on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes; Wes Anderson’s 13-minute short Bottle Rocket (1993), which would eventually be expanded into his first feature with the support of the institute; and Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (2000).

Sundance tells observers a lot about what’s next in movies

Sundance happens before the year’s Oscar season really gets going — in fact, the nominations for the Oscars (which, confusingly, honor films from the previous year) are often announced just before or during the festival, and the awards aren’t given until the following month.

But there’s still the possibility of the following year’s Oscar contenders cropping up at Sundance, and awards prognosticators are on the lookout. In 2019, Awkwafina’s star turn in The Farewell launched her into a year that eventually culminated in a history-making Golden Globe. In 2017, the raves for Call Me by Your Name, starring Armie Hammer and Timothée Chalamet, made it clear almost instantly that we’d still be talking about it when the Oscars rolled around — and indeed, the film nabbed three Oscar nominations. In 2015, Brooklyn premiered at Sundance and was eventually nominated for Best Picture in 2016. Awards other than the Oscars matter too, of course, and many Sundance movies also go on to win Golden Globes, Independent Spirit Awards, and BAFTAs.

U.S. premiere of Lady Macbeth by William Oldroyd, an official selection of the Spotlight program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.
The crowd in 2017 at the US premiere of Lady Macbeth by William Oldroyd, which starred future Oscar nominee Florence Pugh (Little Women, Midsommar).
Jonathan Hickerson/Sundance Institute

Sometimes awards chatter can backfire, though. At Sundance 2016, Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation generated massive buzz after its premiere, which came just a week after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy stirred up heated discussions about diversity in Hollywood. The film sparked a bidding war and was eventually purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest price ever paid for a finished film in the history of festivals. There was major awards buzz for the film as well, especially for Parker, its writer, director, and star.

But in the months between Sundance and the film’s premiere, a rape scandal broke around Parker, and though the film still played at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival later that fall, it couldn’t outrun the bad mojo. The film’s gross box office total didn’t quite make it to $16 million, $1.5 million less than its selling price — a loss for Fox Searchlight, which surely expected to have a hit on its hands when it shelled out at Sundance.

Movies aren’t just about the awards, though, and Sundance reflects that as well. It’s a great place to spot eventual box office winners (such as 2000’s Little Miss Sunshine) and new talent. Major directors like Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Darren Aronofsky (Mother!), and Richard Linklater (Last Flag Flying) all got their start at Sundance. The Coen brothers’ first film, Blood Simple, premiered at Sundance in 1985 and wound up winning the Grand Jury Prize, catapulting the duo toward fame.

A Sundance premiere can mean big things for actors, too: Half Nelson, for instance, which premiered at Sundance in 2006, effectively launched Ryan Gosling’s adult acting career. Behind-the-scenes names — documentarians, musicians, editors — also have the chance to get spotted at Sundance. No matter the role, it’s one of the most important places for filmmakers to get noticed and to network.

Sundance is trying to lead the pack in diversifying the film industry, too

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a featured subject in Rachel Lears’s documentary Knock Down the House, which premieres in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a featured subject in Rachel Lears’s documentary Knock Down the House, which premiered in competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and later began streaming on Netflix.
Rachel Lears / Sundance Institute

Perhaps acknowledging that indie film can be a boys’ club — see the names above — Sundance has also worked in recent years to promote the work of women in the film industry with its Women at Sundance initiative. Forty-six percent of this year’s competition films were helmed by women. That breakdown outpaces the broader film industry substantially; in 2019, though women broke records at the box office, only 12 of the year’s 100 top-grossing films were directed by women. (And only four of those women were people of color.)

Sundance also makes a concerted effort to elevate the voices of other minority groups. Of this year’s 244 projects, 37 percent were made by a person of color, and 19 percent by someone who identifies as LGBTQ, about the same as in 2019. Compare those Sundance stats to some from the broader film industry in 2019, when just shy of 17 percent of the directors behind the year’s 100 top-grossing films in the US were non-white. (There are no major statistics on how many self-identifying LGBTQ people direct films, though GLAAD tracks on-screen representation.)

Since Sundance can act like a clearinghouse for the best independent filmmakers and talent, an increased percentage of women-led and -produced films at the festival could help increase diversity in the broader industry.

The Sundance Institute sponsors other initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in several areas in the industry, as well. One of the major initiatives in 2019, a new press inclusion initiative, was created to boost the numbers of critics from underrepresented communities at the festival, and Sundance has continued it in 2020, providing stipends through a competitive selection process to journalists from underrepresented groups. (The Toronto International Film Festival launched a similar initiative last September.)

Why is this necessary? A study conducted by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and published in 2019 found that the most published film critics are overwhelmingly white and male; additionally, many critics from underrepresented communities work as freelance writers, and covering a festival like Sundance poses a financial hardship, even as it can substantially boost a career.

Sundance allocates some of its top-tier press passes to critics who are part of the initiative, facilitates programming to help new critics navigate the festival, and provides stipends to defray travel and lodging costs for over 50 critics and journalists from underrepresented groups.

Sundance’s emphasis on always looking forward to the future of film is what makes it unique. And at the end of the day — once the bidding wars and awards chatter and branding exercises have died down — the festival is vitally important for people who love good movies. Everything from documentaries like O.J.: Made in America to innovative horror films like Hereditary can appear to shake up the rest of the year in film. And while experienced cinephiles and critics have a sense of what to expect when they arrive in Park City, there’s always the chance that something new and fresh will appear out of nowhere and take the place by storm.

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