NYU Tisch: 20 Years at Sundance

When NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts decided to sponsor the Sundance Film Festival 20 years ago, it was just a few years after the debut of “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” and indie film was exploding.

Dean Mary Schmidt Campbell, appointed to the post in 1991, deduced that the two groups would be a natural match. Two decades later, the relationship is still going strong.

“Our missions are closely aligned,” says John Tintori, chair of Tisch’s graduate film program. “We’re always looking for interesting people who are natural storytellers so we can teach them how to make films. That’s what Sundance supports too — new storytellers, new voices.”

“In an era where big studios are moving toward mass market film, it’s important for us who are championing singular distinctive voices to support each other,” says Joe Pichirallo, chair of undergraduate film and television at Tisch. “Sundance is an approved and accepted place for talent to be discovered.”

Tisch provides financial support for the festival and holds a party for industry insiders and student/alumni filmmakers as well as a private dinner. So many students plan to go to the festival, either with or without projects, that Tintori says they’re starting their winter semester a week late. “It’s really hard for us to run classes otherwise, because so many students are at the festival,” he says.

Indie filmmakers who have bridged their studies at NYU with Sundance include “Jane Eyre” director Cary Fukunaga, “Pariah” helmer Dee Rees and “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granick. As they learned, a strong NYU connection can lead to attention, and often success, through Sundance.

Last year, writer Christopher Ford brought “Robot & Frank” to Sundance with director Jake Schreier, a fellow alum. The film, an expansion of a short Ford wrote at Tisch, won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at the festival.

“I learned through making tons of mistakes on my short,” Ford says today. “Years later, a little wiser, we pulled off the feature version and I found myself at Sundance. When I looked around, I saw a lot of my classmates from NYU.”

The relationship benefits both sides: Sundance is guaranteed an influx of trained, independent-thinking, hungry newcomers while Tisch burnishes its image by turning out filmmakers who land development deals, get distribution and establish long-term, award-winning careers.

This year, four of the films in competition are written or directed by Tisch alums, including “Kill Your Darlings,” “Mother of George” and “Dirty Wars.” The school says that one in three films at the festival this year involve Tisch alums or students behind or before the cameras.

“They encourage the independent spirit and vision with students,” says Michelle Satter, founding director of the feature films program at Sundance. “Tisch’s program has been a great source of filmmakers that we’ve supported over the years in their first features.”

Satter says the industry also benefits from the relationship. “We look to the next generation of independent filmmakers to seed the industry moving forward,” she says. “These are exciting new voices that will be entering the marketplace.”

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