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Sundance Programmers Explain What Makes a Submission Successful

Sundance FFIt’s an exciting time when a project you’ve been working on for months or years is finally complete. However, even after going through all of the stress and chaos of production, looking for film festivals to submit your film to can be just as daunting and complicated as actually making it. But, if you’re interested in submitting to Sundance, two of their programmers, Kim Yutani and Lisa Ogdie, offer some considerations for those interested in entering their films, as well as addressing common misconceptions about the festival.

Sundance is the Super Bowl of U.S. film festivals, having received over 12,000 submissions last year, and only being able to screen a fraction of them. Over the years, the festival has grown from a small venue for independent filmmakers, to one that turns Park City into Little Hollywood. It has become incredibly competitive with big studios and independents vying for screenings of their films.

If you’re a filmmaker who made a film on a shoestring with a handful of friends, don’t fret about going up against the big boys. Yutani and Ogdie shared their insight with Film Independent, who  summarize their suggestions for a number of things to think about as you gear up to submit your film to Sundance.

They advise applicants to “focus on the film” itself, as opposed to spending too much time putting together the submission package. The article reads:

What is the most important part of the submission package? Do press materials make a major difference to programmers? Yutani and Ogdie can’t emphasize enough that a director’s focus should be on the final film and not on supplementary materials. Most of the paperwork gets separated from the actual film or discarded during processing. Don’t waste time with excessive packaging, DVD design, or elaborate credits, says Yutani.

It’s easy to go overboard with providing professional-looking materials, especially when experienced studios are doing the same. However, Yutani and Ogdie make it clear that what’s most important is what is on the screen, not what’s in the press package.

The programmers go on to explain that, yes, first-time applicants do stand a chance against festival alumni and well-connected filmmakers. Sound like lip service? Maybe not. Ogdie explains why having connections doesn’t necessarily give one the upper hand.

If you know someone, you might get a personal rejection letter. Even having a sales rep or distributor doesn’t serve as an advantage — [we have] so many relationships with people who rep films that it would be impossible for us to take everything they present to us.

If you’ve submitted a film to Sundance before and got rejected, it’s not the end of the world. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints Director David Lowery once said that getting rejected by Sundance is “the mark of a true independent filmmaker.” Also, there are many avenues, including other equally promising film festivals, to take your film down to find success. Yutani says:

There are so many great festivals out there. I know a lot of people set their sights on Sundance, [but] it isn’t the only festival that can help you and help your career and be a great place for you to show your film.

Perhaps the best things you can do for the success of your film is to: put everything you have into making it what you want it to be, boldly show it to whomever will watch it (festivals included,) don’t burn bridges with those who aren’t that into it, and dust yourself off after a scathing rejection and get back at it.

In fact, this year’s deadlines are sneaking up on us: August 26th for shorts & August 30th for features, so maybe now would be a great time to get a move on submitting your film.

What do you think about the advice from Sundance’s programmers? What was your experience submitting to Sundance, and does it resemble what Yutani and Ogdie described?

Link: Want To Get Your Film Into Sundance? The Festival’s Programmers Reveal Secrets To Successful Submissions — Film Independent


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  • I was DP and co-producer on a feature that we just submitted to Sundance. In fact, my friend the director just started a YouTube channel this week to video blog about the experience of trying to get it into festivals. There are no shortage of websites and videos giving tips on making a low budget feature, but very few about what to do with the film once it’s finished. So he decided to make one.

    The next video that should be out any day now is specifically about submitting to Sundance and Slamdance and will be worth checking out once it is cleared and published by YouTube.

    Here’s the page for his YouTube channel if anyone wants to see the intro video blog or the film trailer.

  • Submit it, and expect to be rejected. Really. Treat it like a lottery of sorts. And I’d still say it’s worth the entry fee and hassle considering the prizes up for grabs (metaphorically speaking of course).

    You won’t know till you try.

    • That’s exactly what I say. Worth doing because of the payoff if you get it, but not the end of the world if you don’t.

      Cross your fingers; don’t hold your breath.

  • This one guy who prefers to avoid blacklists on 08.25.13 @ 1:03PM

    How to get into Sundance: be a rich kid who has lots of funding for his/her movie or be a Hollywood producer who gets a movie made for more than 3 million. So Indie. So brave.

  • As I’d mentioned before – this begs for another “Black List” type service, except for finished films and not just scripts and screenwriters. Otherwise, most of these will go unseen
    PS. I suppose a minor difference here is that films would have to be uploaded onto an existing streaming site like Vimeo or YouTube prior to being submitted for rating.

  • If you are gonna submit to Sundance and you are a 1st time feature narrative or doc filmmaker then submit to SLAMDANCE film festival as well. Slamdance competition is for 1st time filmmakers and the fest runs the same week up in Park City. There are always Sundance rejects that make Slamdance ( they wait a few days to see what film makes the big show) and many that have gone onto acclaim were they might have vanished if screened at the bigger fest.

    • Good idea! Christopher Nolan’s first movie Following was rejected by Sundance but made it into Slamdance. Slamdance literally takes place on the same street as the Sundance film festival in park city in a single hotel right by the Egyptian theater.

  • john jeffries on 08.25.13 @ 10:09PM

    The easiest way to get into (or even win) Sundance or any of the big fests is to just make a feature that has a narrative which centers around some kind of sensitive American social issue (LGBT, black people, abortion, detroit’s decay, etc), and liberal hollywood will eat it up.

    • Isn’t that a calling card of good film and art in general; commentary on the state of your society and the issues it’s facing?

      • Yes … but, let’s face it, Sundance won’t exactly be featuring “2016 Obama America”, all its social commentary and all.

      • john jeffries on 08.26.13 @ 1:00PM


        and dont even try to gauge what good art/film is or isnt, because its totally subjective

        basically what im saying is that its (obviously) very easy to just make an aesthetically pleasing cultural trend-piece and then get called a “talented filmmaker” or whatever by the board of a large film festival

        a lazily directed movie about lesbians shot on a c300 just won the palm d’or

  • It’s hard to take this article seriously when so so many of the films Sundance screens are only due to connections. Films that have no business being there. Good grief, the Project Greenlight fiasco is proof positive. That film was a bore and so it took the spot away from something worthy. Time and time again big name actors somehow get their little film in. Wonder why!

    • john jeffries on 08.26.13 @ 4:27PM

      exactly. Since when did a 3 million dollar film with Orlando Bloom or Kate Hudson or whatever clasify as “indie”? Besides the lack of major studio support, nothing about it is “indie” at all

  • Best book on the subject is How Not To Make A Short Film: Secrets From A Sundance Programmer.

  • Fascinating that an article on how to get your film into Sundance, the US premier independent film festival only gets 16 mostly cynical comments.
    It says something about NofilmSchool readers Pollyannish view of the industry.

  • I really love this site, but this article was pretty pointless. The title suggests they would share what makes a submission successful, yet there was nothing in the article about that. It pretty much said just submit it and see what happens.

  • “Lip service?”

    Yes, almost entirely. Sure, not everybody with a sales rep or professional PR will get accepted, but to suggest that that doesn’t help is beyond ludicrous.

  • I know at least 3 friends whose films have shown at Sundance, and one of them actually won an award. All were short films (2 docs, 1 fiction), and the fiction film (which won the award) was submitted without having ANY contacts whatsoever. Basically a ‘cold’ submission. So it does happen! I have had 3 films turned down by Sundance, but it won’t stop me from trying again in the future. But I think that the programmers gave very good advice. Sundance is not the ONLY festival out there. There are some which may be better for YOUR film. My films (which Sundance rejected) have won awards and been nominated for some pretty big prizes. By the way, I’m writing from Europe, and all of the filmmaker I mention are European. Which actually puts us at a big disadvantage from what I’ve seen of past programs.

  • I recently paid $150 to attend the Sundance Shorts Lab in LA and I truly wish I’d kept my money in my pocket. The day was advertised as an all-day workshop to help those that make shorts improve their work. It was a joke. And quite frankly, came off ad hoc. Even the programmers were uninsightful. So I’m way less impressed by the Sundance name now. I won’t go into everything I disliked about the Shorts Lab here but I wrote a blog entry about it if you’re interested.

  • From the Indie World.

    “VHX, the direct video distribution platform, today announced a $3.2 million Series A financing round led by Union Square Ventures. Existing investors Lerer Ventures, Lowercase Capital and Alexis Ohanian (Initialized) were part of the new financing, in addition to new investors William Morris Endeavor, John Maloney (Terrapin Bale) and Gunderson Dittmer. Andy Weissman of Union Square Ventures will join VHX’s board of directors.”
    The big key here, IMO, is the presence of WME. This makes this particular service an instant heavyweight.

  • A cinematographer friend recently told me an interesting story: He said he was part of a team that made a film and submitted it to Sundance. Apparently, the writer-director knew Robert Redford’s son, and most of the crew encouraged him to contact Redford to give him a heads up about their film. But the writer-director, wanting to be on the up and up, decided against it, claiming he wanted to film to stand on its own merit. Well, the film was rejected, and afterwards, the writer-director finally contacted Redford. According to the story, Redford proclaimed, “Why didn’t you let me know? Do you realize how many films we get? We can’t possibly look at them all! We take a couple of interns, tell them to randomly grab 200-300 from the roomful of submitted films, look at those, and pick some good ones.” Anyway, that’s the story, disheartening as it is, reported to me by my friend. I’m still not sure if it’s worth throwing money at Sundance or any other festival seeing as how almost all of them are now inundated with (mostly bad) films.