How to Make the Perfect Sundance Film

Sundance Film Festival
Hoping to make a film that will play at Sundance? Take Ted Hope's advice — he's had twenty-three.

Our ten-step formula for how to make a Sundance film comes from veteran producer (and Fandor CEO) Ted Hope, who recently released his first book, Hope For Film: From the Frontline of the Independent Cinema Revolutions. While the (public) deadline for submissions to the Sundance Film Festival just passed, there are surely many filmmakers still working feverishly on their cuts (whether they garnered an extension, or whether they submitted a rough cut that still needs work). And if you're just at the planning stages for a film, it's an even better time to take the advice of the producer who holds a Sundance record for Grand Jury Prizes: three of his twenty-three Sundance entries won the coveted award (American Splendor (2003), The Brothers McMullen (1995), and What Happened Was... (1994)). No producer has won more. 

This is a guest post by Ted Hope, excerpted from his book Hope for Film.

1. The protagonist

Center the story around an everyday person, someone the audience can identify with (not a wealthy or an evil type).

2. The plot

The protagonist needs to go through a serious arc, suffer hardship, and then come to some understanding that the audience didn’t expect.

3. Be bold

Show risk-taking in the filmmaking. Make it feel like it may all fall apart, but then save it at the last moment: People should say, “It’s bold.”

Hope for Film book by Ted Hope
An inspiring, tell-all look at the indie film business from one of the industry’s most passionate producers, Hope for Film captures the rebellious punk spirit of the indie film boom in 1990s New York City, its collapse two decades later and its current moment of technology-fueled regeneration.

4. Be disciplined

If you can’t be bold, be disciplined. If it doesn’t fit the form, cut it out.

5. Own your aesthetic

Embrace, even flaunt, your aesthetic and the limits of your aesthetic. Don’t be ashamed of your limitations. Own your choices.

6. Engage bigger issues

The story has to be bigger than the movie itself and should deal with issues of either class conflict, gender conflict, sexual conflict, or other political issues. How do you comment on the world at large while still examining the minute and particular?

7. Cast

You need to cast a few stars or soon-to-be stars, so it should be an ensemble piece that covers generational conflict. You have the old-name actor you’re bringing back and the up-and-comer whom no one had seen yet, along with actors who can move from TV into feature films.

8. Shock value

It needs some moment of audacity, the kind of thing that people will talk about and that might even shock the uninitiated.

9. The right mix

Have a sense of humor about great tragedy— or find the tragedy in the hilarious. Embrace the cocktail; make it at least feel fresh.

10. Leave them wanting more

Shorter is better; 90 minutes is the new 120 (today, 80 is the new 90). No one ever says, "I wish it had been longer" when they leave the theater.     

Excerpted from HOPE FOR FILM, a film memoir with insights from Ted Hope's directors and productions, currently available from Counterpunch Press.

Ted Hope is currently the CEO of Fandor. As an independent film Producer, his films have received some of the industry’s most prestigious honors: THE SAVAGES (2007) earned two Academy Award nominations; 21 GRAMS (2003), two Academy Award nominations and five BAFTA nominations; and IN THE BEDROOM (2001), five Academy Award nominations. Two of his films, AMERICAN SPLENDOR (2003), and HAPPINESS(1998), have won the Critics Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival. Ted Hope joined Fandor as CEO in February of 2014, bringing with him a wealth of film experience as a creator, curator, advocate and innovator in the film community as well as a vision for how Fandor will grow in the ever-changing digital world of content distribution. Prior to Fandor, Hope was the Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society where he successfully raised significant new sponsorship funding, expanded the San Francisco International Film Festival's offerings to include the innovative Artist to Entrepreneur (A2E) program and launched their new Fall Awards event. 

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I 100% agree with the statement that 90 are the new 120. Thanks!

October 7, 2014 at 9:41AM

Gregor Schmidinger
Screenwriter, Director

This is great advice however, more direct insight would be: center your story around a late teens early twenty something protagonist suffering through an existential crisis and be quirky about it. I love Sundance films and follow as many as I can right to the art house theaters but that is the story of ninety percent of the films that go big there. It's obvious its what they look for as that is a good percentage of their viewing audience. Another Earth, Brick, Winter's Bone, Sound of my Voice, The Spectacular Now, Bellflower, Smashed, Like Crazy, the soon to be released Whiplash, even Napoleon Dynamite and Clerks are all the same story. What about the Raid you ask? Still a twenty something literally fighting his way through an existential crisis. Name any Sundance movie that has gone big and nine out of ten times they are the "twenty something existential crisis" film. So if your movie is a light hearted comedy, a soft drama or an action film starring anyone over 25 (See Swingers) you're better off submitting elsewhere.

October 7, 2014 at 10:54AM


disagree with 90 is the new 120. I'm always hearing people say, "That was really short."

October 7, 2014 at 1:02PM



October 13, 2014 at 9:37AM

Shivani Jhaveri

I must be strange... it's not that uncommon for me to leave a movie wishing it had been longer... at least certain parts of it.

October 7, 2014 at 2:02PM

Mike Ambs
Writer / Director

This is great advice for almost every film and comes from a very smart and gifted producer. But to adress this like a cheat-sheet to enter Sundance is a little too much I think.
Sundance isn't and shouldn't be an end goal so to start with this in mind is terrribly limiting your creativity and your prospects. It's the festival who should attract the filmmakers, not the other way around. If someone chooses the festival route, there are more a-list (Cannes, Berlin, Venice) and B+ festivals if you don't make it to Sundance or if your film doesn't fit with their style. Especially nowadays a Sundance entry doesn't even guarantee a distribution deal.
The important thing for filmmakers is to focus how to make the best film possible, and then figure out what is the best festival for their film. Otherwise, they may end with a formulaic film which would not feel right, since it wouldn't be personal, even if it ticks all the boxes.

October 7, 2014 at 2:12PM

Stelios Kouk

Yep. Thinking about distribution while writing a script is like creative poison (for me at least). It's a great guide for identifying if Sundance is the right place for your film though. Would be nice to have similar guides for all the A and B+ festivals. Particularly the B+ ones. I don't live in the US or Europe so sometimes its hard to get a sense of what all the second tier festivals exhibit.

October 7, 2014 at 10:58PM

Josh Stafield
Director of Photography, Editor

"Mission Impossible 6" will be about Ethan Hunt trying to win a prize at the Sundance.

Know what I mean?

October 7, 2014 at 4:48PM


I love movies that are at least 2 hours long... woops.

October 7, 2014 at 6:28PM

Paul Gall
Writer / Director / Editor

My story has 7 of 10 until now :) And it's in the pre-production yet :) Thanks for the good post!

October 8, 2014 at 2:47PM, Edited October 8, 2:47PM

Bojan Andrejek
DP / Cinematographer / Producer

I agree with all these except 7 and 10... but seeing as how I haven't even made my first film yet I don't have much room to talk...

Do you really need known actors? Why not just an actor who brings a character to larger than life?

And I've wished movies longer plenty of times... most recently The Giver.

October 8, 2014 at 9:41PM

Torsten Pearson

Nothing like a bunch of vague adjectives to give you insight into how to make a great movie! Did the author watch a trailer for a Sundance movie and just repeat all the reviewers' quotes from it?

"The New York Times called the movie "fresh," "shocking," "bold," and "not too long.""

October 9, 2014 at 1:55PM

C. Drake
I like movies

Steve Martin had a great tip on how not to pay taxes on one million dollars. He said, "First, get a million dollars. Now...". It seems Ted paints with a similarly broad brush. I hope for his book sales sake he goes into a little detail on #7.

October 10, 2014 at 11:31AM

Dan Poole
Video Producer

I'm sorry but this list is a bit gross. If you are going to make a film that is likely going to make no money, i.e an independent film. Write what speaks to you not what you think will get you into sundance. Please NFS don't distribute this type of crap as it's damaging.

Formulas belong in the multiplex.

October 10, 2014 at 4:27PM


This isn't very restrictive in terms of formula. Almost every great movie I've seen would fit these guidelines.

October 18, 2014 at 9:09AM

Steve Yager