Park City, UT
2010 Sundance Film Festival, January 21-31, 2010
Considering there are literally dozens of books written about the Sundance Film Festival, you might wonder what I could possibly have to say.
I love this festival. Still. I’ve attended every year since 1992 (as audience, a filmmaker, a journalist, a publicist and as a programmer scouting for films), and while the 2009 edition had me pulling my hair out (between the economic meltdown and Obama’s inauguration, the streets of Park City felt as desolate as they were in 1992!) and I made some empty, wildly dramatic claims that I’d had enough, I will be back in full force in 2010.
For the most part, the how to festival for Sundance is well covered on their website. Sundance is a pass-holders festival, with few (if any) individual tickets available to the general public. The one exception is Utah residents who get first crack at ticket sales when they become available. Each year the Festival takes one more component of the festival experience under its banner—this year, Sundance has announced the formation of a destination desk to book your accommodations for you at Sundance specific hotels.
In general, the practicalities of Sundance all come down to money—this is not a festival easily done on a budget.
As a filmmaker, there are different issues I feel it’s important to take into account that are not covered well on the Sundance site—call it the good, the bad and the (somewhat) ugly. At the end of the page there is a short list of “things to know before you “.
The good of Sundance is really good: publicity, the imprimatur of artistic integrity, the comfort of a cinematic “family”. The good of Sundance has been impossible to replicate anywhere else in the United States.
For the most part, Sundance is still the indie industry’s winter convention—everyone goes. Broken into two sections, traditionally Sundance discoveries (as with any festival) break in the first session (no matter how hard the programming team tries to circumvent that phenomenon) and the industry “bottom feeders” tend to show up for the second session.
The good of this is that if you have a good publicity team (and for Sundance you absolutely need a publicist, whether you are in Dramatic Competition or any other category—this is especially important for the World Cinema and Documentary sections which are often overlooked by the press), and you can survive the initial intensity of unreasonable expectations, outrageous hubris (sometimes your own), and impossible demands, you can get the business of the festival out of the way early and then sit back and enjoy some films.
When to hire a publicist for Sundance you ask? As soon as possible is the best answer. If I were a potential Sundance filmmaker, I’d be interviewing publicists in October. Once you know you’re in, even though you can’t announce until the Festival announces, there is a massive amount of advance work the publicist will be doing behind-the-scenes to secure as much press as possible. Sundance will offer its filmmakers a “preferred publicist” list, but it doesn’t usually come out until early December. Certainly, December isn’t too late, but the more time you can give your publicist the better off you are.
The Sundance organizational chart in the past has been compartmentalized into sections—World Cinema films, for example, have their own World Cinema Festival Publicist, their own World Cinema Programmer, and their own World Cinema Filmmaker Liaison. These people are part of your Sundance team, and while you should make full use of them also remember they will have other films to care for as well. This means filmmakers are well served by bringing on their own team (especially publicists) who can work hand in hand with the official festival team to maximize all opportunities.
As filmmakers in the festival itself, my best advice to enjoy the “good” is to remember to breathe during your time in Park City. It’s hard enough to literally breathe, considering you are at about 9,000 feet elevation, but also the energy surrounding the festival can be counterintuitive to the idea of relaxation. However, bringing in as much oxygen to your lungs can reduce the negative effects of altitude, decrease your stress, and realign your mental capacity to see the festival with clear eyes.
My second bit of advice is to drink water, party without getting drunk (how many stories do I have to have of filmmakers throwing up on that one agent or that one producer or that one actor they always wanted to get to before people will stop getting drunk at altitudes they aren’t used to!??!), go to as many other films as possible, meet as many people as you can, and talk about your film to EVERYONE you see (I still like Albertson’s on the festival’s opening day for networking—shopping the aisles are a veritable line up of Hollywood Who’s Who).
One of the other uniquely good things about Sundance, if you are in the festival, is you are now not only a part of the Sundance “family” but you have access to an extraordinary array of events and networking opportunities. In a business built on relationships, these two things can be vitally important.
If you are a filmmaking attending the festival without having a film programmed, it can be a little more challenging: without easy access to events you have to work a little harder to set up meetings and “run into” those important people you hope to see. While party crashing at Sundance has evolved into an art form, I find the parties the least helpful in pursuit of business—they are often too loud, too crowded, too elitist, and all too precious for any real work.
No matter if you are in the festival or not, the industry comes to Sundance to do business so do some advance work: pick up the phone, set up some meetings, be prepared with the “ask”, do your homework, be ready with your project. Outside of the films, this can be one of the truly great things about Sundance…for those unafraid to put themselves out in public.
Sundance is a beast. You have to plan early, far before you even know if you got into the festival, for things like accommodations and travel. Hotel rooms can be 60% more expensive during the festival season. There is no parking if you drive in (other than a few expensive parking spots offered by the festival). Restaurants book late but book fast. Festival rules make it nearly impossible for publicists to get their clients delivered to the theater. The red carpets are a mess. The gifting houses foster a disgusting sense of entitlement and greed. The streets are clogged with festival hangers on—everything from the ESPN sports suite to non-festival filmmakers trying to screen their films in a van on Main Street.
How do you avoid all this? Knowledge is power. Remember why you came to the festival. Spend your day achieving your goals. Surround yourself with people who care more about you and the film, and less about the b-list celebrities looking for paparazzi. Be a serious filmmaker. Rise above the lure of free crap. Enjoy the experience but don’t be sucked into believing you are more than you are. Film festivals are heady stuff, and Sundance is the headiest—don’t let all that “hot air” suffocate you.
Sundance, like other festivals, is director-driven. Whether you believe we have an auteur system in America Cinema or not, directors are still king when it comes to a festival experience. While this isn’t unique to Sundance, it does take on enormous proportions during this festival so overly crowded with “filmmaker perks”.
As a filmmaker, you know full well how critical your producer, your writer, your DP, your sound guy, your entire crew was to the making of the film. But this can be hard to remember when only the director is invited to the dinners, the parties, the gifting houses (ugh, those again), the receptions.
No matter how many times we warn producers in particular that during this part of the process they will feel ignored, it is still somewhat of a shock. Sundance has tried to mitigate this by having the Producers Brunch during the festival, but producers aren’t really mollified by meeting other producers when their directors are meeting Robert Redford and a cadre of Hollywood A-list elite.
In a perfect world, well in my perfect world, Sundance would create some kind of intimate pitch session for all festival producers who have their next project ready. It would be a private, high level event, putting festival producers in front of the very people they are anxiously trying to meet. It would generate new work for Sundance to claim a hand in, and go a long way to recognizing the creative abilities and contributions of independent producers. At least it would be a start…
Of all my Sundance experiences at the 2009 festival, I am extremely proud to have had a (very) small role working with the Chilean Trade Commission on behalf of the film La Nana (The Maid). Easily one of my favorite films of the festival, La Nana resonates on every level as it tells the story of a maid who has spent years in the service of one family. Electrifyingly charged with Chilean cultural and societal undertones, La Nana is a darkly subversive, highly crafted coming-of-age story that struck every nerve in my body raw.
La Nana ( http://www.themaidmovie.com/) starts its US release this October (2009). It is being released in the US by Elephant Eye. Handling the film in LA are indie distributor MJ Peckos (http://mitropoulosfilms.com ) and publicist Marina Bailey (firstname.lastname@example.org).
What to know before you go:
√ Park City in January is cold and dry. Dehydration is a big issue and can zap your strength before you know it. DRINK WATER all the time. As I tell my filmmakers, if you’re not peeing all the time, you’re not drinking enough.
√ Layer your clothes. Temperatures inside are often 60 degrees warmer than outside.
√ Prepare for the ugly combo of jet lag and altitude. When you are coming from far away, consider coming 2 days early and staying in some cheap motel in Salt Lake City if only to get your mountain legs.
√ While the independent film world is focused on Sundance for ten days in January, it’s not the Holy Grail. It’s a film festival. Make it work for you, enjoy your experience, make new friends and don’t let it overwhelm you.
√ Hire a publicist
√ Do what the publicist asks you to do
(I don’t care if you partied until 5:00am, if you agreed to a 6:00am interview on Park City TV I’ll come and drag your sorry ass out of bed if I have to)
√ Craft your sound bites BEFORE the festival
√ Be realistic about the goals and expectations you have for your film
(often this starts with NOT expecting to make a sale the first weekend of the festival)
√ Be prepared with at least a well-crafted pitch about your next project
√ Be generous on stage
(always thank the festival, your producers, the cast and crew first, and especially acknowledge the team’s efforts during the Q/A. I’m not the only festival programmer who has a little litmus test for filmmakers on stage—if you only talk about “I” this and “I” that the whole time, I’m less inclined to want to invite you to my festival, no matter how good the film is)
√ DON’T sell the rights to your film before your first screening at the festival