The Sundance Film Festival recently wrapped its 40th edition, a milestone for the event that has come to define American independent filmmaking. While this year’s event featured works by rising filmmakers including Jane Schoenbrun, Rose Glass, Sean Wang and Alessandra Lacorazza Samudio, there were also new films from Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater, established directors still closely associated with the early years of the festival. The legacy of Sundance is very much ongoing, extending far beyond the snowy mountains of Utah.
Starting at Sundance 2023, The Times has followed a group of filmmakers throughout the year to get a sense of the highs and lows of the job at this particular moment in Hollywood and cinema history. They reflected a wide range of experiences, from entering the festival with distribution already in place to waiting, still, to announce how their films will be more broadly seen by audiences.
“Polite Society” writer-director Nida Manzoor recalled the nods of respect and approval from the crew when she subsequently wore her official Sundance hoodie on the set of her television series, “We Are Lady Parts.” Filmmaker C.J. Obasi said he had continued traveling with his film “Mami Wata” practically nonstop through the year. Erica Tremblay saw Lily Gladstone, the star of her movie “Fancy Dance,” go on to be nominated for an Oscar for her role in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” — even as it took more than a year for Apple Original Films to be announced as distributor for Tremblay’s movie.
Despite their unique challenges and obstacles, we asked everyone the same basic question: Does Sundance still matter? From navigating the overwhelming emotions of being on the ground during the festival itself to the endurance test of the ensuing year, the answer from our participants was a resounding yes.
Raven Jackson (“All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt”): I do feel it mattered. There was a momentum generated at Sundance that the film was able to build upon throughout the year. Even after Sundance, there were quite a few months where the film didn’t play anywhere else. But it felt like that momentum of the premiere at Sundance helped it to still be in the conversation when it did come back into the festival circuit. And so I do feel Sundance was an important element of “All Dirt Roads.”
I was not a Sundance fellow, I didn’t go to the labs. So playing at the film festival allowed me to be a part of the community in a deep way, which I’m grateful for. The biggest thing that experience taught me [is] there’s a big difference between imagining what the experience of being on the festival circuit will be, and actually being there, the experience of going through it. That was the door opening to this year.
Kristen Lovell (“The Stroll”): Sundance was a big deal for me in terms of acknowledging me as a filmmaker, establishing me as a filmmaker. It’s changed my life dramatically in the course of a year. It was definitely an experience that is unforgettable. I got to travel this year more than I have ever traveled in my life. I got to meet so many amazing people. It seems like it’s been nonstop since.
I’m going to be candid, Sundance was a lot. It was my first time going into the mountains of Utah. I wasn’t ready for the mountain air. I caught COVID while I was at Sundance, so I had a lot of reflection to do while I was there in my hotel room. I had to stay an extra five days. Sundance was over. I was pretty much the lone Sundancer. So I said to myself, I had been from the depths of the city to the top of the highest mountain. And it was such an amazing journey,
Zackary Drucker (“The Stroll”): Film festivals are more important than ever in a constantly shifting and morphing industry wherein companies are consolidating. It’s been an incredible time of transformation in film and television, and film festivals are essential to emerging filmmakers getting their work out there, having an audience. And without them, independent filmmaking would really be jeopardized. It’s scary to think of a landscape in which there were no film festivals. And so I feel very responsible to uplifting Sundance and being a part of this community of storytellers. It’s a very noble pursuit and often thankless, so to have space where we can convene and tell our stories and sit together, it’s so crucial. We’re so fractured, in our physicality, in our realities. We’re so dependent on social media and Zoom for connection. And so coming together is what makes us human. We’re so relational, we’re so social, and all of the obstructions of modern life keep us separate.
So the pure joy of premiering to such an enthusiastic audience, I couldn’t overstate that. I will remember that moment for the rest of my life. And moments of joy like that in life are rare. To have the opportunity to share your work, it’s a revelation. And for “The Stroll” in particular, the Sundance premiere was the first time an audience had seen the film. A very small number of people had seen it, a dozen maybe, just the executives at HBO and people directly involved with the film. So there’s a kind of alchemy to filmmaking — it’s a spell too, what you put into the world.
Nida Manzoor (“Polite Society”): I’m learning more and more as time goes by how much Sundance mattered. It was just pure excitement and joy at the time, like the dream of Sundance, of having your film premiere there. As a filmmaker, it has its own glow. But I think now understanding the platform that it gave my film, the way it presented it to audiences, the sort of seal of cinematic approval that Sundance is, is so meaningful. And now when you see the film landscape, which is huge blockbusters coming out in a way that … a film like mine that had no famous people in it, it just wouldn’t cut through. And I just realized how important Sundance was to helping it cut through and find the audience it found. As cinema is changing and you’ve got just these heavy-hitting films with big directors and big stars, I really have personally felt the importance of Sundance allowing my film to stand out when it did. So as I reflect on it, at the time it was excitement and joy, but now I’m feeling the real-world payoff of Sundance.
C.J. Obasi (“Mami Wata”): It was a life-changer for me personally. I can literally draw a map of my life before Sundance and after Sundance. It really was that drastic for me. It wasn’t subtle at all. The kind of rooms that I have access to now, the sort of people that saw my work a certain way that see it a different way now. It’s just different levels of transformation. I’ve heard different stories about people who go to Sundance. Some might not have the dream experience that they thought it would be. But that’s how life is. Not everything always pans out exactly the way you want it, every time you want it. But I’ll be honest with you, it panned out exactly how I wanted it. I’m not going to bulls— you and tell you that it didn’t work out. It worked out for me just perfectly.
Thembi Banks (“Young. Wild. Free.”): Absolutely, Sundance still matters. It’ll always matter. What I got out of this process was fulfilling a dream, which is premiering at a very important festival, a very meaningful festival, and getting support and community and a chance to showcase my work in a very special way that only Sundance can up in Utah on that mountain. So that in and of itself is still not lost on me and not something that I’ll ever get used to as far as being there and having that experience and checking that box off and saying I accomplished something that was a huge part of my list of goals as a filmmaker.
As for what happens after Sundance, I did a lot of research and listening to interviews and reading up on a lot of my favorite filmmakers who went to Sundance and them talking about the realities of it. And it’s not like, “Hey, you go to Sundance and then you’re at the Oscars and you got $40 million in your bank account.” It’s still indie film, it’s still hard. And you’ve still got to fight to get that next film and that next, next film. You’ve still got to fight to let people know that you are capable of doing things and you’ve still got to fight to pay your bills. When you premiere at Sundance with a very small film, that does not mean that you’re all of a sudden rich. Knowing all of those things prepared me to understand that after Sundance there is a very specific and special kind of space that you occupy. It’s a beautiful one, but it’s still full of the realities of being an indie filmmaker.
Erica Tremblay (“Fancy Dance”): As someone who didn’t go to film school, didn’t have access to something like that, my relationship with Sundance started years ago when I was in my first Indigenous Lab and they supported me to make my first short film. And just that beginning relationship blossomed into this really incredible community that included more labs, more mentorship, more access to things that I didn’t have access to prior. And what a special ride it has been to premiere my first short film at Sundance in 2020 and then to return three years later with my first feature. And to be able to kind of mark my journey as a filmmaker alongside this incredible, storied institution is such a gift.
And you get this momentum coming off of it. I’ve 100% absolutely, without a doubt, booked jobs in the past year because I was at Sundance. I have people reading because of the success of my film at Sundance, and for me, full circle, it’s been a long year of trying to find a home for the film. It’s just so much work. All of it’s a lot of work, but it makes you feel a little safer and a little less alone when you have this community of Sundance behind you.