Film school and Sundance: the impossible ideal (by Ryan Conrath)
An open letter to the Sundancing team this year from a former student (now in film school):
Sundance is for many just an idea. It’s something that looms over countless student productions. It’s a running joke in film school: “When we get into Sundance…” In another sense, it’s also taken very seriously. It was a big deal when a colleague’s film got into Slamdance. The same guy’s movies have even been shown at Harvard and Cannes. But to my knowledge, Sundance still remains for him the elusive beast that it is for thousands upon thousands of expectant students and professionals.
Again, as an idea, Sundance is probably the most powerful force in American film today. It is almost more of a bragging point to say that your movie got into Sundance than it is to say it was optioned by Hollywood. When you meet someone who had been lucky enough to get a film in (which even as a film student in Boston is seldom), the question, if not exactly asked this way, is usually “How?” The Duplass brothers will admit that their continued success at the festival is the result of a sort of tradition of inbreeding that many have suspected is very much alive within the festival. A couple I met a while ago insists that one has to have a powerful person at the gate.
A gatekeeper? Is this Kafka or something?
Many people have tried to figure out what makes Sundance tick, and have failed. One thing I recommend you don’t do while at Sundance is try to figure out the thinking of the selection committee. In other words, don’t bother yourself with questions like, “What do all Sundance movies have in common?” As the most important film festival in the states, Sundance is distinctly American in the way it is unclassifiable and constitutes a convergence of unlikely forces. It isn’t purely independent, but there is still also much about it that is antithetical to something like Hollywood. I remember seeing movies like Old Joy and Pine Flat and wondering why so many people think the festival has sold out. However, you will no doubt find a great deal of largely mainstream fare that just barely is classifiable as “slightly off.”
Before the early nineties when it really began to take off, Sundance might have seemed like a tricky sell as the next big thing in American film. But one of the greatest things about the festival is that it has done what countless cities and filmmakers and similar events have failed to do: make the world come to them. In the last couple of decades, Sundance has managed to secure itself as a staple not just for cinephiles and independent filmmakers around the world, but for Hollywood as well, luring more and more people every year to frigid temperatures and difficult travel situations just to be part of it all. What it has become is really remarkable. Now it seems like cinema might as well have not existed before Park City. By all means, get caught up in it.
Just as a fun aside, I wanted to provide you with a copy of the letter you receive when you submit to Sundance and get rejected. A friend of mine submitted a short film we had all worked on together and within a couple of months received this letter:
As the Director of the Sundance Film Festival, I would like to thank you for submitting your work to us, and I truly appreciate your hard work and dedication as an independent filmmaker. Unfortunately, we are not able to include your film in Sundance Film Festival 2009.
For the first time in our Festival’s history, we received over 9,000 submissions. While this gives us the unique opportunity to consider work that spans a wide spectrum from around the globe, it certainly doesn’t make it any easier to narrow those entries down to an entire program of just over 200 films. I’m sure it is no consolation to you that we are forced to make these difficult decisions, but I do believe that there certainly is an audience for your film and I anticipate that you will find the appropriate platform for presenting it. I regret not being able to include all of the films that we appreciate, but we simply don’t have the room. We look forward to having the opportunity to view your work in the future.
Director, Sundance Film Festival
Sundance is, undoubtedly, the 800-lb gorilla for so many people. This little note can play like a rejection letter from your top choice for college. But if anything, let this be a reminder of the numerous festivals that have been spawned in the very same place at the very same time as Sundance, as a sort of response to the giant. Definitely try to make it to a few screenings. Tromadance is maybe one of the most interesting. If you don’t get to see your favorite movie of the two weeks at one of Troma’s screenings, you will at least meet some colorful people and get to drink tasty beer, I promise. Slamdance is of course a fun time, and I believe they are celebrating their tenth anniversary this year, so expect good times.
So I don’t want any of this to come off at all like some giant wet blanket between you and that spirit of celebration which has undoubtedly become part of the Sundance experience. If anything, I would wish only to enhance your appreciation for how Sundance is, on the one hand, only a small piece of the pie. On the other hand, it’s the whole damn bakery.
Nate asked me to reflect on what Sundance means to me as someone who is in the process of trying their hand in the film industry. Granted, I am not exactly the Sundance “type.” This is not because I am just stubborn. I dream more of things like multi-screen installations in galleries than packed theaters at ungodly hours in the mountains of Utah. This is not to say that I am disconnected. I have acted in a movie that was shown in Park City (Ahem… not Sundance. But put it on your application as shown). But what is the state of the film student in the age of Sundance? Many of my friends who want in have, I believe, a good shot at it with some of the projects they have going on right now. For my part, I am doing some part-time work for PBS and applying to PhD programs.
Happy Sundancing Eckerd!
[Ryan Conrath graduated from Eckerd College in the Spring of 2006 with a concentration in Film Studies. He is currently completing an MFA in Film Production at Boston University, and is applying to Ph.D programs in Film Studies. He participated in the Sundance Winter Term trip twice: first as a regular student and then as an independent scholar and assistant.]