Unchained at Sundance 2012: Reflections

I filled out my 2012 Sundance Film Festival volunteer survey yesterday and with that, it’s officially over. I checked the little box that summed up the fest as a “5-best experience of a lifetime” as it truly was. Everywhere I turn there’s another review, photo recap or filmmaker interview blasted via Twitter, so I definitely know it wasn’t a dream. I actually did attend last month.

Back in my civilian life, the goal now is to process what I learned at the festival. If I’m ever fortunate enough to have my directorial debut in Park City, here are some things I will not forget:

Paying your own way to fest: I saw many Kickstarter pages go up right around the time Sundance announced their official selections. Why? Because festivals are very expense. You may get a selection of complimentary tickets for your screenings, lots of event-themed swag and discounts throughout the event but the bulk of the financial burden is on you and your team. Also, I never thought about it but how do you decide who on your team attends and how that’s getting paid for? If it’s a premiere, you definitely want the whole film family there to celebrate/promote the film. Bottom line, prepare as far in your preproduction as you can to include funds for festival attendance like travel, tape masters, sleek promotional materials, food, housing. **Again, don’t forget you have to pay for the Kickstarter/IndieGoGo perks if you reach your campaign goal.

Give the people (relevant) swag: The cool films give out free stuff at their screening. At the volunteer screening of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, we exited the theaters only to be handed blue beanies with a the afro silhouette of protagonist Hushpuppy and the magical “beast” animals by the film team. Totally makes sense. Fest attendees are walking around in snowy Utah, give em’ a free hat to stay warm. Throughout my journeys through Main St., I also saw folks with faux used tampons from the EXCISION screenings and little buttons giving the middle finger from the AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY  screenings (you’d have to see the films to get the references for these). Anything goes as long as it makes people remember your flick.

First-time filmmaker pressures: One observation I quickly noted was how much weight people added to films made by first-time/new directors. Everyone at the fest is just waiting to play critc. If they thought it was really good, they’d say “But he/she’s so young?! First time making a film/never gone to film school/no name actors/no-budget/three person crew and it’s premiering at Sundance? Good for them!” On the other hand, if this person didn’t like the film, oh man. The conversation, eh complaints, got brutally honest. “It was self-indulgent/bad script/horrible acting/too long/needs work, etc.” One patron even said: “I wanted to have a talk with the filmmaker afterwards but I couldn’t stay through the whole thing.”  I’m sure the bar is just as high for any film premiering to audiences, but the newbies sure get the chopping block first. I observed from some pretty great filmmakers like Benh Zeitlin (BEASTS) and Terence Nance (AN OVERSIMPLIFICATION OF HER BEAUTY) that the best way to combat the swell of feedback is with a balance of humility and confidence in your developing voice.

Life goes on in February: Distribution deals are the ideal situation for any major festival. However, if it doesn’t happen during the actual event, it’s not the end of your film. There were plenty of films I saw that didn’t see get sold during the 12 days of Sundance. I’m thrilled to see now that they’ve either announced deals (like MOSQUITA Y MARI by Aurora Guerrero and LUV by Sheldon Candis) or premiering on television already (SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME by Sam Pollard on PBS Feb. 13th). Overall, the best teams I saw at Sundance already had a full exciting life planned out for their films, like history-making Ava DuVernay’s AFFRM/Participant Media partnership for MIDDLE OF NOWHERE. Even Spike Lee’s ever assured RED HOOK SUMMER will have an August 2012 release with or without a distributor.

Surround your film with a well-equipped team: You as the director will be way caught up in the grandness of Sundance, especially if it’s your first time attending. There will be panels, brunches/lunches/dinners and festival engagements for you to attend and represent the film. Sounds great, sign me up, right? The part I hadn’t ever contemplated was the role of the film’s key production team. Oh, their roles are highly important. Everyone in your “film’s army” should be prepped with a succinct yet memorable synopsis of the film, director’s background, key production notes, Twitter handles, Facebook pages/blog urls, film contact information and most importantly screening venue/time postcards.

Most of all, I learned that you must document the extremely euphoric event (excuse the alliteration) that is screening your directorial debut feature at Sundance or any other premiere film festival.  You only get one first time!

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One thought on “Unchained at Sundance 2012: Reflections

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