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How Sundance Became a More Inclusive and Diverse Film Festival

In the lead up to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Mindy Kaling noted that “Late Night,” the story of an aspiring writer who endures a “Devil Wears Prada”-like initiation into the world of comedy, is a familiar story about breaking into the entertainment business. But, the Indian-American Kaling noted, her version has one key difference.

“So much of this movie is about being a fan and being on the outside of the entertainment business,” Kaling told Variety. “That story has been told many, many, many times by 52-year-old white men, and I love all those movies. And as a comedy nerd I’ve always identified with them because it was the closest thing that I could identify with. There was no one like me making those kind of films.”

“Late Night,” which scored a record $13 million domestic distribution deal following its premiere last week, isn’t the only example of a Sundance hit that’s shattering glass ceilings. This year’s festival appears to be making good on its pledge to foster an environment that’s more diverse and inclusive. From the films that Sundance’s programmers selected to the critics it has invited to debate their merits, the gathering is shaking things up, and working to highlight more female voices and more points of view from people of color.

“I’ve been to a few Sundances, and this one definitely feels really inclusive. There are a lot of movies I really want to see because of it,” said Jessica Williams, the writer, star, and co-creator of HBO’s “Two Dope Queens.”

In November, for instance, Sundance announced it had achieved gender parity among its film programmers. It followed that up by shuffling its media credentials to favor underrepresented film critics. In an opening day press conference, Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam said that the festival was horrified to realize it had been admitting “mostly white male critics.”

“This lack of inclusion has real-world implications,” Putnam said. “So we decided to do something about it.”

In response, Sundance shook up its critical ranks to the point where 63% of the press is from underrepresented groups. At a time when Hollywood is being pressured to become more inclusive, Sundance is taking the lead.

Of 112 films in the official selection, 40% are directed or co-directed by a woman, up 3% from 2018. Among the directors in the four primary competition categories (56 of 112), 39% are people of color — that’s also up 3% from the previous year. Those who identified as LGBTQ directed 13% of the year’s films (it is the first year the festival has reported the stat).

“That’s the game changer, we’re telling our own stories instead of auditioning for someone else’s. When you have that power, it’s harder to take it away, especially from creators,” said Phoebe Robinson, co-creator of “Two Dope Queens.”

Robinson and Williams held court in HBO’s Main Street lounge, where the cable network also held speed-mentoring sessions for aspiring filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. Mentors included “Insecure” executive producer Amy Aniobi and co-producer Ben Cory Jones, “Ballers” story editor Jason Lew, “Westworld” staff writer Gina Atwater and “Camping” cinematographer Quyen Tran. There’s been a lot of talk in Hollywood about the importance of mentoring in changing executive ranks and writers room — it’s a push that the festival officially embraced in launching an inaugural talent forum for 2019.

Based at Park City’s Kimball Arts Center, Sundance mounted three days of one-on-one meetings for its lab participants to seek career advice, notes and even financing for work in progress. Some 42 projects in narrative, non-fiction and digital categories were discussed over meetings with nearly 50 participants.

“We have seen time after time how customized support — and access — has made the difference for artists from underrepresented communities in moving past systemic barriers,” Karim Ahmad, Sundance director of outreach and inclusion, told Variety.

Three days into the festival, many in Park City and users on social began buzzing about resonant work from Asian women, titles that would go on to score distribution following well-received premieres.

Along with Kaling’s “Late Night,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell,” starring Awkwafina, went to A24 after a bidding war. Justin Chon’s “Ms. Purple” starring Tiffany Chu made waves. Apple also picked up “Hala,” a coming-of-age drama centered around a Muslim girl, starring Geraldine Viswanathan and directed by Minhal Baig. And “Blinded by the Light,” Gurinder Chadha’s ode to Bruce Springsteen, nabbed the festival’s biggest deal, a massive $15 million pact, after a spirited screening that inspired sing-alongs and a standing ovation.

It was also a triumph for returning women of Sundance like Anne Sewitsky, whose feature “Sonja: The White Swan” is her third to play the festival. In 2011, her project “Sick Happy” won the world cinema grand jury prize for drama.

“The first time was intimidating, the second time was finding my way around and now it’s like coming home,” Sewitsky told Variety. “I know Sundance has been very conscious about bringing females forward, and it’s a political task you see in programming and panels. We have similar actions in Europe and Norway that I have been a  been part of. I think it’s a process that goes backwards and forwards, but in the long run things are getting better.”

In the queer space, GLAAD flew in to announce its own curated version of the Black List, in partnership with the Franklin Leonard-founded survey of the best un-produced scripts in Hollywood.

“The GLAAD List” highlights the most inclusive of the annual Black List projects. Scripts on the inaugural list include: Harry Tarre’s “Queen,”  based on the true story of the world’s first openly transgender high school prom queen, and the Diane Hanks project “Paragraph 175,” about two men facing persecution in Hitler’s Germany.

“We are even more excited by the prospect that this spotlight will vault these films toward production and into theaters around the country and the world, bringing with them a more LGBTQ-inclusive culture and society,” said Leonard.

African-American filmmakers also came out in force, with a slew of meaty dramas about race and identity including HBO’s “Native Son,” directed by Rashid Johnson and “Luce,” Julius Onah’s familial pot boiler with Naomi Watts, Kelvin Harrison Jr., and Tim Roth. The latter sold to Neon and Topic studios.

What’s more exciting, for returning Sundance director JD Dillard, is subverting genres like horror by simply putting a young woman of color in the driver’s seat. He’s done that this year with the Jason Blum-produced “Sweetheart,” starring “Hearts Beat Loud” breakout Kiersey Clemons.

Clemons plays a young woman who inexplicably washes up on a remote island. By day she tries to feed and shelter herself, by night she evades a creature that emerges from the water to stalk her. Dillard said that social justice in cinema is important, but so is making someone like Clemons visible in any story. He recalled a sentiment he recently read on Twitter.

“Sometimes, I just want to watch black people fight dragons and fly spaceships,” he said.

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