Advice from Sundance filmmakers and programmers to make it happen.
This post was written by Kristine Hamlett and originally appeared on Adobe blog on Jan. 24, 2022.
Getting into the Sundance Film Festival can launch a Hollywood career. The dream of your film being the next Call Me By Your Name, Manchester by the Sea, or The Usual Suspects (yes, all were Sundance world premieres) inspires more than 13,000 films (features and shorts) to be submitted for consideration each year at one of the world’s largest and most prestigious indie film festivals.
For young creators, getting a film into Sundance might seem like a pipe dream. But with determination, a lot of help, and a little luck, we think you can land your joint in the Sundance Film Festival.
We (Adobe) have been a sponsor of Sundance for years. We’ve interviewed loads of filmmakers about their craft, films, and process. So we’ve gathered top takes from some amazing artists on how to get your film selected.
Spoiler: there isn’t a "Sundance Submission To-Do List" to get your film into the festival. Your filmmaking journey will be completely unique from everyone else’s. But the takes below will help kickstart your process. What you create, how you create it, and the help you get along the way is where your success will lie.
Embrace the grind—and the hustle
When starting in on your film creation process, putting in the work matters. And you never know where a great idea will come from.
Sam Feder, director of Disclosure, which premiered at Sundance in 2020, knows this first-hand. “Always be making work. Even when you’re on the train—make a video when you hear people speak. Always be engaged with your process and your practice. Understand that your practice isn’t separate from your life.”
“There’s no limit to what you can learn and do if you are able to self-motivate or find like-minded people to work with and support you to work, hustle and get things done,” said Gabo Arora, producer of Sundance world premiere films Clouds Over Sidra, Ground Beneath Her and Zikr: A Sufi Revival. “There’s so much to learn and be exposed to, and ways to evolve your process as you create.”
Dilcia Barrera, feature film programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, recommends applying for grants and fellowships to help guide your vision once you’re ready to make a film.
Shaandiin Tome, director of Mud, which premiered at Sundance in 2018, and Long Line of Ladies, which premiered in 2022, was a recipient of the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, which supports the next generation of Indigenous American storytellers through the Full Circle Fellowship.
“I applied for and was awarded the Fellowship and then I felt like I could really get to work making my film. It was such a confidence boost to have resources and someone—or some entity believe in my vision,” she said.
Follow your truth
Telling a story without understanding your purpose or your "why" can quickly derail your entire project. Successful filmmakers have an objective they want to convey—to make your audience feel emotions, to bring personal experiences to life, or to explore beliefs. A directionless film will quickly lead to… nowhere.
“Think about creating art that is personal and passionate—not to impress a certain type of institution or person. [Your film] should be about what you want to say, and what you’re trying to give to the world. You’ll never be able to guess what a specific programmer’s taste will be like, which is why we don’t give feedback,” Barrera says. “People think that at Sundance we have some mysterious way of choosing films. But honestly, it’s all about the content. We’re looking at the story and the passion, authenticity, and honesty that filmmakers bring to the table.”
That authenticity also has a lot to do with speaking your truth. Young filmmakers often have a hard time finding their voice.
“For me, it was tough to have my voice heard, even though I felt like I had a very defined idea of what I wanted to direct and shoot, it took a while for me to find the confidence to say—I can do this and this is how I’m going to do it,” Tome said.
When Tome was awarded the Fellowship, it introduced her to a world of filmmaking with perspectives from people of all different walks of life and made her realize she could use filmmaking as a form of expression rather than catering to other people's expectations.
Pulling from personal experiences can also tell a story in a way no one else can.
“After 9/11, I worked for International Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) and became a humanitarian—but had this feeling that I wanted to tell stories, make films, and do something more meaningful. Coupled with new technology that I was passionate about, I wanted to tell stories like they’d never been told before. I started to think about my place in the world,” Arora said.
It takes a village
In Arora’s opinion, it’s nearly impossible to create successfully without getting others involved, and what gets them involved is taking a fresh, new, and different approach on a subject that the group is passionate about.
For Tome, the collaborative process was essentially a sounding board for her as a filmmaker, integral for the shooting of Mud, to incorporate different perspectives she hadn’t previously considered.
“You hear different perspectives and start to realize that you don't have to do things in exactly the way you thought you did—and that’s transformative. It's more like, 'This is the film I want to make,' and they'd challenge me and ask, why. All the 'why's' and the questions allowed for something that was so much stronger than I would have made on my own,” Tome said.
Feder had a similar experience: “You have to build a team—I wish there was another word but you need to find your people. Grassroots, community building is what can make a film possible. Nurture relationships, find people who are like-minded with the same ethics, values, and passion you have for telling stories.”
The right time to submit a project?
The Sundance Film Festival selection committee, responsible for the films that make it to Park City, Utah (and this year virtually because of COVID-19), is made up of 10 full-time programmers, each specializing in an area tied to the festival’s different competition and exhibition categories. The team watches every single submission, before allowing less than one percent of those submitted into theaters.
Worried about whether it’s the right time in your career to submit, or whether your film is "Sundance-ready"?
“Once you submit a film to Sundance, you get into our system. We start to track your career and your progress as a filmmaker, and when we see people who are really growing, we’ll pay closer attention to what they’re doing. It’s a good strategy to get on the right trajectory for your film festival life,” Barrera (feature film programmer) explains.
But remember, once you submit your film for Sundance, you only get one shot with that project—second versions or re-dos aren’t accepted. So avoid rushing and sending in a rough cut. Put in the work to ensure that your film is polished—and a world premiere. Sundance prides itself on being a venue for people to discover films.
A "no" isn’t the end of the line
Rejection is a part of life, and unfortunately a very big part of a career in filmmaking. For every yes, it can be accompanied by a dozen (or more) no’s. Also, just because you find success on one film doesn’t mean the rejections are over.
“After three films at Sundance and at various film festivals around the world, I experience an enormous amount of rejection—still. A yes is the minority,” Arora said.
Identifying your purpose and leading with it can get you through. Arora urges filmmakers to not become discouraged and give up, even amidst a lot of rejection.
“The most important thing to identify is how you keep your motivation up to constantly iterate and make your work better. Sometimes it’s letting go of certain ideas and finding those that resonate with you—the most tragic thing is when you just give up altogether. Find a side-hustle—it keeps your spirit alive. Find something bigger than yourself,” Arora said.
Ready to create something?
At Adobe, we are all about helping the next generation of creators create. Check out these links for more advice from filmmakers, links to tools, and tutorials to help you make the next blockbuster.
If you had a film that was honestly eligible for sundance you would have managers and a studio backing that would get it in front of programmers for you, you wouldn't need to read any articles like this.
The problem with these big fests (and things like any narrative film grants!) that no journalists ever report on is how much of a HUGE cash grab this is at the expense of young filmmakers who have been told, more than anything, to "Believe in your work with your full heart".
The fact that articles like this are written on behalf of a fest like Sundance and directed at the demographic that has the least chance of getting in just rubs me the wrong way. They get 9,000 shorts submitted every year and only have room for 60-70. Is no one else understanding how much free money that is for them??? Don't you think it's wrong for them to hype us young filmmakers up like this just so they can take advantage of us?
If they really cared about us they would lower their submission fees instead of raising them, OR have a sliding scale based on the film's budget.
February 8, 2022 at 11:36AM
A) know someone
B) have famous cast members
C) go back to A
February 8, 2022 at 7:47PM, Edited February 8, 7:47PM
Can we stop with these articles? Film festivals are for the majority a waste of money for the indie filmmaker.
Unless you have a hook-up or have a known cast you are not getting in.
Period. End of story.
Better off posting your work on YouTube more people will end up watching it.
February 9, 2022 at 4:48AM