Sundance trip provides inside look at film industry


Photo Courtesy of Blake Snawder

Desi Gillespie, Staff Reporter

For film enthusiasts, it’s a legendary festival that encompasses the object of their desires: creating an independent film, earning a submission, then winning the competition. For the rest of the world, it may only sound vaguely familiar.

“Sundance is an independent film festival that brings in different types of films from all over the world,” said Nayeli Pineda, a junior majoring in English and political science. “There’s a world cinema competition, a U.S.-only drama competition, short movies and art movies. It’s also got creators – like filmmakers, producers, actors – on panels to talk about issues going on in filmmaking.”

Over 45,000 people flock to Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival each year. It is the largest independent festival in the United States, showcasing 14,200 submissions, according to the Sundance Institute.

“We have a lot of students who are interested in being filmmakers, and they think of five jobs: a writer, an editor, a director, a cinematographer or producer,” said Kristen Warner, associate professor of journalism and creative media. “No one really thinks about those jobs in between, so it was important to me as an educator to get students to think about careers outside of those five things. Sundance is an acute experience in that you’re enmeshed in all this work that’s happening over six days with all these people at your disposal who want to talk to you.”

Warner first went to Sundance in 2005 as part of a short film recruitment effort for the Arizona International Film Festival. After experiencing the marketplace of ideas at Sundance, in addition to the competition, she was inspired to bring students to the festival once she began to teach full time.

“It was really fun to go on the trip with Dr. Warner because she’s really knowledgeable about the industry,” Alex Cherry, a senior majoring in telecommunication and film, said. “She’s been to Sundance so many times that she told us how to get into the films we wanted to see, where to go to meet the right people, who to talk to. She was really helpful without being overbearing.”

Founded in 1978, the festival aimed to boost the film industry in Utah and shed light on the potential of independent American works. Since then, it has grown into an international competition. Sundance festivals have even spread to other countries with Sundance Hong Kong and Sundance London. It is the premiere festival for those looking to get into the industry.

“I want to eventually be a producer for film,” Cherry said. “I think this really helped because I was able to talk to a lot of filmmakers and find out how they got to where they are now, how they have a film at Sundance, how they got to this place. I got to talk to several directors of films that I saw and ask how they got started. … Them telling me about their experiences and hearing what was most important really inspired me and made me feel like my dreams are more attainable.”
Beyond the competition itself, the panels at Sundance offer commentary and insight that are invaluable to students. This year’s discussion topics included pushing boundaries in narrative filmmaking, new technology in cinematography, diversity and many others.

“I like the different sorts of light that the festival shines on issues in politics and everyday life,” Pineda said, “I’ve wanted to go to Sundance since I was a freshman in high school. I love independent films because they have more diverse viewpoints than we see in mainstream media.”

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival begins Jan. 23 and ends Feb. 2. Registration for the UA trip to the festival will begin in the fall with an application and interview process.

“After the [interview] sessions, we filled out a form and then we got interviewed, and she handpicked about 15 of us to go,” said Blake Snawder, a sophomore majoring in creative media. “To be able to go was a very big honor. The group that went is a mixture of film majors, PR and marketing, political science – because there’s a lot of different jobs at Sundance, not just filmmakers.”

The experience at Sundance leaves students with a greater awareness of the diversity of jobs in their industry, Warner said. The trip offers the rare chance to fulfill a dream with a valuable opportunity.