Sundance has the labs, and it has the festival. It also has long tentacles that reach into various parts of the industry and keep its own connected, collaborating, and best of all... WORKING. 

Looking for entry points into what Lavitt calls 'the Sundance community ' is challenging? To most filmmakers, the only way in is through acceptance into the festival. The other way... acceptance into the labs. 

Ignite is a lab too, but it's a slightly different one, really aimed at helping those who might not have a polished project yet but do have a strong, burning desire to make films. 

Here is what you need to know about this way in. 

No Film School: Can you tell us a little bit about the Sundance Ignite program, and then we'll get into more of the specifics as an opportunity for filmmakers. 

Meredith Lavitt: The Sundance Ignite fellows program is an artist development program where we're supporting emerging filmmakers ages 18-25. The goal of the program is to get them to the next step in their career and filmmaking journey. It's about giving them an entry point into the industry and creating opportunities where they're going to meet industry and other filmmakers.

NFS: How does somebody get in? 

Lavitt: The first step is applying to the film challenge. We do a short film challenge on our digital learning platform called Co//ab. We're partnered with Adobe as well. You submit a 15-minute film and the prompt is "What Ignites You."

What we want to see is a story you're passionate about. We want to see your vision, your unique voice. What we don't want to see is you copying what somebody else did and thinking, "Well that's how I'm going to get in."

We are looking for filmmakers who are really serious about being filmmakers and are passionate and have a drive and a voice and a story they just need to tell.

Those shorts get reviewed and whittled down to a finalist round and then there's an application that the filmmakers fill out if they become a finalist. We do an interview, then our selection committee elects the final 10 fellows.


NFS: And what happens once you're a fellow.

Lavitt: Once you become a fellow, it kicks off in the summertime with a lab just outside of Los Angeles and that's all about orienting the fellows to the rest of their year, getting them ready to learn how to pitch their film and create a deck and take meetings.

NFS: All related to that first short? Is that what they are pitching?

Lavitt: It actually doesn't have to be. Here are some of the very cool things about the fellowship. You receive mentorship for an entire year from a Sundance alum, whether they're a filmmaker or producer. You're working with a mentor for the entire year. You're working with the Sundance team as well to help you find internships, find additional mentorship if you need it, give feedback, give notes, set meetings. We're doing program placement within our other Sundance programs, whether it's them getting to be an intern, an observer or an actual participant. 

NFS: So fellows get placed into the other Sundance labs?

Lavitt: Yes, when there are opportunities to either observe or intern from one of our other labs, we send our fellows there. We've had fellows be drivers at the director's lab, PA's, art directors. It depends on what their level of experience is. They weave in and out of our different programs.

NFS: So you try to place them where they're going to get the most benefit?

Lavitt: Yes, and once you become a fellow, you do get funding to work on a project during your fellowship. So it could be one project, it could be five projects. We just want to make sure they have some financial support to work on something while they're an Ignite fellow. We're not dictating what that is. That's up to them. And then we're looking at all our fellows, international and domestic, saying 'what do you need to really help you get to that next step?'

It can be anything from really learning how to hone their pitch to setting them up with meetings where they're going to get representation.


NFS: Do they finish this project through the course of the year?

Lavitt: They don't have to have it finished. They just need to have something they're working on.

The key thing is, once you become an ignite fellow, you enter the Sundance family. And I always say to my fellows, when they first come, "welcome to Sundance family, whether you like it or not, you're one of us now and we're like the mafia and we never let you go."

The continuum of support that Sundance provides for all of our programs is amazing. I think it's what is so unique about Sundance is that I have 70 fellows right now from the beginning of the program till now. 

NFS: What year did Ignite start?

Lavitt: 2015 and I still work with so many of the fellows. They send me scripts. I still set up meetings for them. Just because the fellowship ends, doesn't mean our support ends.

It's a way into the world of Sunday and it's also a pathway to figuring out how to get your film made. Because a lot of these fellows come out of film school, or they didn't go to film school, and they know their craft but they don't know how to get their film actually made.


NFS: Film school doesn't teach all of that. We mention this a lot, but the practical elements, the relationships you need, etc. And it sounds like what the Ignite program does is it really immerses you in the community so you know who you need to know and you get to know what all these little parts of the process are that don't have to do with framing a shot.

Lavitt: Right. To be honest, one of the most amazing things to come out of this program that was sort of an unintended result was that the creative community that Ignite makes is 9 times out of 10 the most valued things fellows get out of the program because they're all in touch and every year they connect. We have an alumni fellow right now who is finding financing to put an anthology film together where he's asked 4 other Ignite fellows to each produce a short film. He's going to pick a theme and they're all going to do a short film, and then he's going to put it together as an anthology and hope to get distribution. 

"Filmmaking is like climbing a mountain, right? Ignite is here to put up a ladder"

Filmmaking is like climbing a mountain, right? Ignite is here to put up a ladder, to help those fellows find a pathway up the mountain to get their film made. Once they get to the top and they're getting their films made, then we're hoping on the other side they'll come back and be our mentors.

NFS: Yes. So tell me about some of the Ignite fellows who've moved into the industry. 

Lavitt: Each year since we've started this program, fellows have come back and premiered their short films. It's been amazing to have that sort of gratification.

This year for the first time we have an Ignite fellow who has a feature film in the next section, called Some Kind of Heaven. That's really exciting. This is our sixth year and we have our first feature. We also have three fellows who have short films premiering, two of which premiered shorts last year. So this is their second time coming back to Sundance.


NFS: I think it's good to always emphasize that there's a separation of church and state, between The Sundance Institute and the festival.

Lavitt: Yes. This year alone, we had 16 Ignite fellows apply. Not all 16 got in. 

I think what Ignite does for emerging young artists is it gives them motivation. We care about your art, we care about your voice. For any of these young filmmakers, that is so key in sort of unleashing their agency to go out and make their films. The mentorship program is huge because it's not a short mentorship. It's a year-long mentorship and they're developing really deep, meaningful relationships with their mentors who are all Sundance alum. We've had Dee Rees, Jeff Orlowski, Effie Brown. Jason Berman comes every year with amazing films.

NFS: So when do filmmakers submit? Do they submit through Co//ab?

Lavitt: The challenge launches February 4 and closes March 17.

NFS: And the key to submissions is: individual perspective. A passion that is unique to the filmmaker, and a story that needs to come out.

Lavitt: They need to tell their story. They need just to tell a story that's really authentic and true to their voice.

NFS: Because, and I think it's always worth mentioning this, if the goal is to create new filmmakers and help unleash new artists in the world, you really want to make sure you're doing it with people with a unique voice that needs to be heard.

Lavitt: Exactly. And here's the other thing that I think is unique to this program. We're looking at these films and not all of them are like the most amazing finished film. But what you can see in their artistry is a hunger. Like they have to be a filmmaker. They have to tell stories. We're also looking to find those filmmakers who really need us to champion them and help them and give them a shoulder to stand on so that they can believe in their voice and get their films made. 

I also want to encourage that filmmaker who doesn't have all the resources, or a finished polished film to apply as well. We want to see vision through the application process. This is an artist-focused fellowship, not a project focused fellowship. We're selecting the artists, not the film.

NFS: Right, because it's not about the project being ready, it's about Ignite creating new artists in the community.

Lavitt: Exactly. Nice slogan you just gave us.

For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

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