Filmmakers Talk What They Learned at Sundance and How to Get the Most out of the Festival

Everything you need to know about the Sundance Film Festival, from the mouths of Park City alumni such as James Marsh, Nancy Savoca and David Lowery.
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As the 2016 Sundance Film Festival kicks off, we revisit a piece from 2015 in which Talkhouse Film contributors and friends of the site who have had notable success in Park City over the years share their hard-earned wisdom about the event. — N.D.

What’s the most important thing you learned at Sundance?

James Marsh
Ignore or forget the hype going in. Once the festival is underway, word gets out very quickly about the quality — or otherwise — of the individual films. It is a venue where word of mouth is still the most important and reliable conduit for separating the worthwhile films from the clunkers. And there are many more of the latter. Also, Sundance is probably the best major festival for documentaries; the festival gives them a real profile and many of the best films of the festival can be found in the documentary categories. Finally, like Telluride, Sundance is at high altitude — and that seems to get everyone a little carried away with their enthusiasms. Films can thrive at Sundance and look like the next big thing, only to be screened at sea level and look utterly mediocre.

Terence Nance
Weather, man. It’s a magical nuisance. Also, don’t party, watch movies.

Travis Mathews
It’s a bit of a whirlwind that requires stamina. Don’t forget to take care of yourself with simple things that keep you moving with a half-functioning brain.

Chad Hartigan
I learned what kind of life my movie would have. I learned what kind of movie it was. You think you know. You have some idea of how you personally feel about it, but until it’s released out into the world, you don’t really understand how it will be perceived. And I don’t just mean, will people like it or not? Why do they like it? What do they like about it? It was a fascinating experience to observe and I think the Sundance audiences are the perfect people to shape that for a filmmaker.

Stacie Passon
To see movies while you’re there. As many as you can. Soak it in. The culture there is amazing. It’s a treat to be there. Enjoy it.

Michael Mohan
In this industry, people often forget that we are the ones who create the trends. But in order to do that, we must make decisions that cannot be compared to past successes. We must operate from instinct, and protect that instinct. What I’ve learned is that audiences will reward you for taking these risks — especially the ones in Park City.

Calvin Lee Reeder
In the four times I’ve been, I learned to really enjoy the first couple days as much as possible. The magic begins to fade after that, even if good things are happening with the film.

Tim Sutton
You should not pay attention to the first-out-of-the-gate bloggers’ opinions of your film because it wasn’t to their taste or was “challenging.” This is not always the case, but often, with under-the-radar, small films, the inexperienced and attention-hungry critics seem to come forth with a dismissive voice first while the more nuanced and intelligent critiques arrive later. Don’t stress. Listen more to word of mouth and enjoy the conversation with your peers and know that the film critically lands where it should in the long run.

David Lowery
To not read reviews. To really not read reviews. I learned this at Sundance, ignored the lesson for the next six months, and was all the worse for it.

Desiree Akhavan
I had a fantastic time because I didn’t go in with any expectations. That counts as a thing I “learned,” right?

Nancy Savoca
I was in labor with my second son the night I won Sundance so have no real advice except “push.” 🙂

Michael Tully
I learned that the Grub Steak salad bar is my favorite way to kick off a new year; I learned that watching a bad film can be as inspiring as watching a good one; I learned that watching someone else’s great movie is an infinitely more rewarding experience than talking about my own; I learned that it’s probably the healthiest plan of attack not to succumb to the finger-food options — veggie trays, chips, etc. — at any given party (to paraphrase my better half, you need to remind yourself at all times that Park City in January is a petri dish for the world’s germs).

Ben York Jones
Just because your film gets into Sundance doesn’t mean you’re “all set.” I remember returning home after the first time in 2010 and being kind of sad because I’d just had the greatest time of my life and suddenly I found myself in my room, alone and completely broke, figuring that was as good as it would ever get. I got back to work to distract myself, and that process fed into what became Like Crazy. It taught me in an experiential way that only work begets work. Sundance represents an inequitable life-changing opportunity, but it’s all about what you do with the opportunity. I think that outlook applies to most things in life.

Craig Johnson
Don’t take shortcuts down icy embankments. You will fall and crack your tailbone. Stick to the paths. This is common sense for most people, but I am not most people.

My advice to filmmakers would be to enjoy your time there. Suck it all in because you may never be there again. It’s easy to be distracted by all the industry stuff, but never forget, you made a film that got in to freakin’ Sundance. Savor that.

Also, pay no attention to the media narrative about what films are “the talk of Sundance” or whatever. It usually focuses on four to seven feature films, ignoring about 115 others and a shit-ton of amazing shorts.

 

What’s your advice on how to get the most out of Sundance?

Ben York Jones
As far as experiencing the festival itself goes, I think it’s good to go in with a plan, but also count on ditching that plan once you’re there. It’s important to be flexible so you can seize moments and be spontaneous. No one ever has tickets to anything until the last minute so don’t sweat it too much. It will work out if you’re on the dance floor. Educate yourself on what’s playing. If you’re going for the full festival, things die down in the middle, so take advantage of that and sleep then. Give yourself some lazy days, but otherwise take advantage of every opportunity. And stay well. Vitamins. Hydrate. Keep your feet dry and warm.

Michael Mohan
Stop looking at your phone to see what parties your friends are at and if they can get you in. See movies. Especially the ones that friendly strangers recommend to you on the shuttle bus.

Kyle Patrick Alvarez
I think that everyone is going to have a different experience there. Some people are going to break out big, but most don’t and that doesn’t mean your experience should be any less valuable because of that. You can’t go hoping you’ll be this huge hit there, because then you’ll just steep yourself in disappointment. I remember feeling quite lost the first time I went and I think that was due more to expectations and confusions of mine that were misaligned. So the best thing is just to go and do your damnedest not to compare yourself to other people’s experiences. Create your own fun, spend time with your friends, focus on it being a celebration of your film and do your best to put away all the other concerns, reviews, sales, awards, etc.

Craig Johnson
Drink lots of water.

David Lowery
This sounds trite, but the best thing to do is to be positive! About movies you love, movies you don’t love, the lines you’re standing in, the couch you’re sleeping on, the snow that’s falling, the parties you sneak into, the parties you don’t get into, the parties you realize you don’t even care about, the distribution deals, the reviews, the awards, the food or lack thereof, the filmmakers, the audiences, everyone around you. It can be an easy place to get down until you look around and realize where you are and what you’re doing, and then you smile and one thing starts leading to another.

Calvin Lee Reeder
Try to hit one movie a day at and try to visit New Frontier a couple times. The shorts party is also a ton of fun. Filmmaker parties in general are cool, they’re less exclusive yet somehow populated with the best people. It seems like if you don’t force it you’ll eventually make connections you are there to make.

Stacie Passon
Even if you are a presenting filmmaker, it’s all about movies. Make use of the pass, and get in there and see other people’s work, don’t just focus on yours.

Terence Nance
Don’t party, watch movies and have your next project ready to go!!!

If you can manage it, get the whole distribution of your film part out of the way before you get to the fest. Just get it out of your hair. Move on with your life.

Chad Hartigan
Stay for the entire time. It’s 11 days or something so it’s an endurance test but it’s like experiencing three different festivals. The first is a glorious blur of activity and business, the second is a relaxing time actually to see some movies and the third is a non-stop party with the volunteers and other stragglers who are still around to close it down.

Travis Mathews
Say yes to chance meetings. They happen. Also, don’t underplay the power of your cohort who are going through the same craziness with you.

Michael Tully
For me, it all begins with not forcing things or trying too hard. Yes, you want to do justice to all of the hard work you put into your film, but you should also take the time to stop and be grateful that you’ve already made it this far. Which is to say: don’t waste the moment by stressing out too much. I can pretty much guarantee that there will never be a time in your life when you look back and think, “Man, I’m so glad I freaked out about that!”

Desiree Akhavan
Pace yourself (like your career, it’s a marathon, not a race), take space if you need it (it’s easy to get overwhelmed), don’t read reviews (whether good or bad, it’s all toxic), and don’t take it so fucking seriously (it’s just a film festival — you’ve already gotten in, everything else is gravy and out of your hands).

James Marsh
Simply, study and master the bus schedule as soon as you arrive. Perversely, avoid and distrust any and all approaches from any of the major studios. They are usually full of shit and they want to take your talent and destroy it. Luckily, you will never hear from them again anyway.