What is the Sundance Film Festival?

Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal
Many festivals specialize in a specific category within the film field.
Many festivals specialize in a specific category within the film field.

The Sundance film festival is an annual event held every January in Park City, Utah. Founded by actor Robert Redford, the festival was named after his character in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The festival is designed to promote and showcase American and International independent films. It is run as part of the Sundance institute.

The Sundance Institute is a non profit organization that aims to help filmmakers enhance their talents. The Institute runs labs year round that have the resources to develop artistic talent. Many film makers, including Quentin Tarantino, have taken their early films to the Sundance Institute labs to workshop.

The Sundance Institute originated in 1981 with the intention of focusing on independent film. It has had a checkered history. Many filmmakers love the institute, but others feel it runs by its own guidelines and does not adhere to the true spirit of independent film. Although Robert Redford described the institute as a collaborative effort, many people claim that he was in charge and always had the final word.

Nevertheless, the film festival is enormously helpful for many independent filmmakers. It is a place to screen films that the major studios would not otherwise touch. The end result is that the major studios often pay millions for films that receive good word of mouth from Sundance.

Many major studios send their producers to the festival in hopes of finding the next major film talent. If a film is not bought by a producer, the filmmaker can take advantage of the resources of the Sundance Institute to help develop it. Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the film that is thought to have renewed public interest in independent film, was first shown at the Sundance film festival.

During the 1990s, independent film enjoyed a comeback in popularity. Million dollar deals were made after viewings at the Sundance festival. The major studios realized that big money could be made with relatively little outlay. These sorts of deals were said to be the creative death of independent films, but Sundance is still the first point of call for the independent filmmaker.

The institute’s labs are dedicated specifically to the filmmaker. Scriptwriters, film music composers and directors have found the Sundance labs invaluable to the creative process. Filmmakers from around the world are drawn to the Institute for its creative atmosphere and business networking opportunities. What started off as a small collaborative project is now one of the world’s largest and most important film festivals.

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Discussion Comments


@SkyWhisperer - I’d go to Sundance just to attend the workshops and sessions, even if I had no films to submit. To me that would be the best education. I recommend that you do that before you even consider submitting a film. That way you’ll know what the audience – and the judges – expect.


@hamje32 - You can get the Sundance channel on most cable stations and some satellite dish networks too I think. It’s a great venue to preview the kinds of films that are shown at Sundance.

Frankly, I think independent films are a lot more creative and enjoyable than the usual fare that Hollywood puts out. Hollywood relies on rote formulas and clichés, resulting in a lot of dumb movies in my opinion.

It’s gotten to the point where I can rarely sit through an entire Hollywood film anymore. Independent film makers still have free reigns in creativity. Whether they sacrifice that when they “make it big” in Hollywood is another story, but I would think that as long as you write the story, you have a certain amount of freedom.


@Mammmood - Independent film has certainly gained some respect. Some of the past Sundance film festival winners have scored big movie deals with Hollywood. Actually, I think that’s a mixed blessing.

Once Hollywood gets hold of the film they do a first distribution and then go about creating a sequel. They tend to polish the sequel over too much in my opinion, and that takes away from some of the authenticity of the finished product.

Still, you can’t beat the exposure you’ll have when your film is in movie theaters nationwide. I wouldn’t submit anything if you really think you’re film is not on par with what theater goers respect.

I realize that now and then a “Paranormal Activity” or “Blair Witch” can make it big, but I think most of the entries at Sundance are shot on film with full cast and crew.


Years ago I started doing independent film making; low budget stuff using my digital camcorder and a handful of actors who were willing to work for little to no money (but lots of food).

As I researched possible outlets for my work I came across the Sundance film festival and learned of its reputation for promoting independent film.

I never got around to submitting my work to them –I think I was a little concerned that it wasn’t quite up to snuff, really. But I am glad that this venue exists.

Perhaps one day I can submit a short film to Sundance that will at least get screened, even if it doesn’t win any awards. It’s not that hard to submit a film. You just have to follow their guidelines and pay a modest entry fee. You’ll find details online, along with Sundance film festival photos of past winners.

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    • Many festivals specialize in a specific category within the film field.
      By: chaoss
      Many festivals specialize in a specific category within the film field.