Michelle Satter, director of Sundance’s Feature Film Program, has a daunting job. It includes finding the writers and directors that Sundance invites to produce programs, and then running the January Screenwriters’ Lab and the June Filmmakers’ Lab at Redford’s mountain retreat.
But after meeting Satter in person, there’s little doubt she’s up to the task. Satter has an unusual gift for conveying intellectual intensity wrapped in a manner of remarkable calm. It’s a little like encountering Mother Teresa with the brain of Golda Meir.
Satter is the first door through which talent and material for Sundance programs must pass. Each year she scours the country searching for the best candidates in three categories: new talent, transitional artists (people who have established projects they want to pursue) and filmmakers who have made a film and need help developing their next project.
Assisting newcomers is, she says, the hardest part of her work. “My greatest challenge every year is finding material and talent. The writers and directors, and the ideas they are working on, define the institute. They make it exciting and substantial.”
There are many sources for the chosen few. Sundance maintains a modified open-submissions policy: Anybody can submit a two-page synopsis of an idea along with a biography of themselves and a cover letter. If this submission survives a preliminary reading, the script will be read and considered.
In addition, Satter searches aggressively for material across the country. She solicits recommendations from film schools, reviews the winners of student awards, watches for prospects in the theater and the performing arts, keeps abreast of emerging novelists and attends film festivals. Resource people – the famous and successful who volunteer their time to the institute – and former participants feed her other options.
The selection process for the January Screenwriters’ Lab is a clue to the enormity of her job. Satter considered “about 500 ideas in the form of synopses, about 300 scripts and probably another 150 tapes.”
Of the approximately 950 possibilities, 25 were presented to the Selection Committee for consideration, along with projects recommended directly by former resource people and members of that year’s committee.
Redford and Satter hand-pick this rotating committee, composed of writers, producers, directors and production executives. She says they look for a cross-section of tastes and professions in the nine people, but similarity in terms of goals. “We believe they know Sundance, have some interest in what we’re about, have a sensibility that looks for the daring idea and are not concept-driven.”
The final committee determination is not made by majority rule, but by what Satter calls “advocacy.” “It’s about advocacy. It’s not, are there six people who will support this project?, but are there one or two who will fight for it? It’s about passion.”
Seven of the 950-odd ideas submitted made the final cut for support at the Screenwriters’ Lab. The participants include novelist Walter Mosley, who is adapting his novel “Devil In A Blue Dress,” and New Zealand writer-director Alison Maclean, who is premiering her short film “Kitchen Sink” at this year’s festival.
Each writer works one-on-one with a top Hollywood talent who guides the writer through script development. The institute’s goal is to create an environment where a writer can find his or her own voice. Satter describes this approach as both sensitive and realistic.
“There’s a delicate balance in helping someone else find their way,” she says. “It must be nurturing but tough. As a writer, when you’re asking hard questions about your work, you’re asking hard questions about yourself. It goes beyond the next draft. There are meetings that have changed people’s notions about themselves – themselves as writers and themselves in the world.”