The future is always in sight at the Sundance Institute. For 25 years, the nonprofit org has cultivated emerging film and theater artists, aiding them in honing their craft. What’s next for audiences is Sundance’s new mission.
“As distribution is changing, the way people experience film and entertainment is changing,” explains Michelle Satter, Sundance’s feature-film program director. “There’s a sense that the audience is flat for American independents and foreign-language films. But we’d like to look at the audience and get it to the next level. We’re looking at technology and developing strategies for really increasing audiences for broader visions.”
Embracing new technologies as well as providing a venue for exhibition has been a hallmark of the Sundance Film Festival, the institute’s most visible program. As the first major festival to add digital projection, create an online version or showcase new technologies at its digital center, change is a directive that comes from the top. “Sundance is always about the edge, always about reinvention,” says Ken Brecher, exec director of the Sundance Institute.
Institute staffers are utilizing the 25th anniversary to further broaden the visual and performing arts org’s reach. According to Brecher, success will mean Sundance has “moved into areas in the core programs of film, theater and music that other people are not in.” For the labs especially, it means “work that in some ways is regarded as not yet of the mainstream or of our own times, pushing us into new areas and asking new questions.”
Robert Redford founded the now multiprogram institute with a modest goal: a summer workshop for promising filmmakers guided by industry pros. Since summer 1998, more than 500 filmmakers have participated in the feature film program, principally at the scenic Sundance Resort in Provo Canyon, Utah.
From “El Norte” to this year’s festival entrant “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints,” the filmmakers program continues to foster talent with the aim of staying connected for the long term. This year’s fest opener, “Friends With Money,” comes from writer-
director Nicole Holofcener, who has had a decade-plus relationship with the org.
While the main point of entry to the institute remains the Screenwriters Lab, support increasingly extends through editing, sometimes until distribution. In 2005, the Annenberg Foundation endowed several stipends that underwrote living expenses for film fellows post-lab.
This fall, Satter expects to have a new program in place for screenwriters to fund an off-season resident writers retreat much like the Sundance theater program’s playwrights retreat.
“The theater program has grown exponentially over the last four to five years,” says Philip Himberg, its producing artistic director. Forty-eight projects have made it to production in the eight labs since 1997. Thirty-six playwrights have taken part in the February playwrights retreat in Wyoming at the famed Ucross artists colony under the auspices of Sundance.
“It’s rare that the public thinks of theater and Sundance,” Himberg notes, despite the fact that most major regional companies have performed Sundance-bred projects such as Regina Taylor’s “Crowns” or Moises Kaufman’s “The Laramie Project.”
Currently the institute underwrites more than 70 days of theater workshops, including the summer Theater Lab and a midwinter lab at White Oak in Florida that focuses on musical and ensemble work, as well as the playwrights’ retreat. Legit productions that owe their provenance in part to the Theater Lab include the musical “Grey Gardens,” Lisa Kron’s “Well” and Terrence McNally’s “Some Men.”
As with all Sundance initiatives, the theater program has an international scope that encourages cross-fertilization between cultures. Last spring in Krakow, Poland, Himberg organized workshops around “I Am My Own Wife.” Himberg predicts Sundance eventually will have a theater-commissioning program to jumpstart new work, much like the Sundance documentary fund does for nonfiction projects.
“Sundance labs’ best moments are when people are crossing disciplines,” Brecher says, singling out two who have done so: Hany Abu-Assad (“Paradise Now”) was a doc filmmaker when he came to the Film Lab, while John Cameron Mitchell pushed himself into film from theater.
From the personal to the political, the institute seeks out those who can execute their own vision. As Brecher explains, “We don’t judge our success by weekend grosses — we judge our success by what our artists do next.”