Helping independent filmmakers to feel a little less alone in the development of their visions, the Sundance Institute originated not with the festival but a year-round series of feature film labs through which new talent could shape projects with input from experienced professionals and their peers. For these mostly first-timers, this is a career-changing opportunity that allows scribes and helmers to resolve a nascent project’s tone, story, structure and other problems they might not be able to address on their own.
“We look for projects where we can have the most creative impact,” says Michelle Satter, who, as director of the Institute’s feature film program, spends the week prior to the festival overseeing one of the org’s twice-yearly screenwriters’ labs.
According to Satter, the program’s mission of supporting and nurturing independent voices has not changed over the course of 30 years. However, as a reflection of the realities of indie filmmaking and financing, that support has evolved and expanded over time to include post-lab, script-to-screen efforts and most recently, access to digital distribution platforms via aggregator New Video. As projects often get stuck for financial reasons, the institute annually provides $500,000 in grants to approximately 30-40 projects. In addition to funds, support takes many forms: a stint at another Sundance lab, formal screenplay readings, introductions to producers and works-in-progress screenings.
To Satter, these private screenings have the biggest impact on projects because they provide valuable creative input. “What we do is provide feedback at a critical moment: not how to solve an issue but rather, here’s where a film is not working,” says Satter. Unlike in a studio situation, there are no notes to address. “We’re not financiers or producers. The filmmakers make their own choices.”
Traditionally, the peril of workshopping creative endeavors can be that original voices are molded into acceptable formulas. “You don’t watch Sundance lab films and think, these are cut from the same cloth,” finds Sundance attendee Jason Resnick, an indie producer and consultant. “Nor are filmmakers pushed into genres, pandering to the desires of distributors.”
Instead, the Sundance imprint could be generally described as a focus on character-based scripts with artistic intentions. For instance, while indie scare-fests are a staple of Sundance’s Park City at Midnight section, it’s unlikely there will ever be a lab-sponsored horror pic.
Although the labs seek out risk-takers with original points of view and unusual stories, Satter can also point to a long history of commercial and critical successes spawned by Sundance labs, including Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs,” Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.”
It seems natural that projects shepherded by the labs would find their way into the festival lineup. While the perception is that lab films have a leg up when it comes to Sundance fest acceptance, Satter contends the opposite is true. “The bar is higher for lab projects: Programmers expect more out of them,” she says. “The film has to work on the screen.”
Per Satter, on average over the past 15 years, 45% of lab projects were produced and 90% of those were distributed, though not always theatrically. In total, 164 finished works supported by the feature film program have been selected for the fest. This year, five lab projects will premiere in the dramatic competition (including opener “Hello I Must Be Going” and international entry “My Brother the Devil”), with seven more screening in other sections of the fest.
But in today’s era of YouTube sensations and DIY digital filmmaking, do indie filmmakers need this kind of coddling? Are the labs, in effect, subjecting would-be auteurs to filmmaking-by-committee? Director Ry Russo-Young’s “Nobody Walks” went through three labs and a formal reading via Sundance.
“They really want you to make the movie you want to make and express it as clearly as possible,” says the helmer, who co-wrote the screenplay with Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) under the Institute’s wing. “They taught me to ask the right questions when thinking about a script and a movie.”
As a participant in four Sundance labs, “Beasts of the Southern Wild’s” director Benh Zeitlin found that self-examination is primary. His description of the dynamic epitomizes a zen approach: “They don’t tell you what you should be doing; you look at yourself until it becomes clear,” he says.
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