#Sundance40th: A Look Back at the Sundance Institute’s 1980s Origins


Cinda Holt, Euzhan Palcy, and David Chambers at the 1985 Directors Lab. ©1985 Sundance Institute

Through our #Sundance40th series, we’re offering a decade-by-decade look back at the Sundance Institute’s first 40 years, celebrating the artists and projects that have been such a vital part of our history. And our story doesn’t end here: We need your help in supporting the storytellers of tomorrow. Donate now.

The Sundance Institute’s story begins back in 1981, the year Robert Redford and Michelle Satter launched our signature summer labs with the intent of fostering new voices in American cinema — voices that had rarely been heard within the Hollywood system. That June, they brought 16 visionary emerging filmmakers, along with 34 generous actors and creative advisors, to the mountains of Utah for a transformative experience that has been held every summer since.

Gregory Nava (right) at the 1981 Directors Lab. ©1981 Sundance Institute | Photo by Sharon M. Beard

“The atmosphere of being up there in the mountains, away from everything in the beautiful valley, with the beautiful mountain and this clear air and the birds and the wildlife, really took away all that stress that you feel in Los Angeles and in the film industry,” recalls Gregory Nava, who was at that first lab with his second feature as a director, El Norte, which was eventually nominated for an Academy Award. “[That] opened the door to a lot of sharing and interchange of ideas that was very impactful and very special.”

Below, read more about the key moments, the landmark projects, and the visionary artists from the decade who helped make the Institute and the Sundance Film Festival what they are today. And when you’re done, we hope you’ll help us lay the foundation for the future of storytelling. As a nonprofit, we’ve been able to offer these vital artist support programs thanks to the generosity of people like you — people who understand the impact that storytelling can have on our culture at large.



To learn even more about the Institute through the years, from 1981 through today, explore our interactive master timeline.

Larry Littlebird (left) at the 1981 Directors Lab. ©1981 Sundance Institute

1981: Robert Redford founds the Sundance Institute and hosts the first-ever summer labs, inviting 10 teams of filmmakers to the Sundance Resort in Utah to work on their feature films. Among the year’s crop of projects are Gregory Nava’s El Norte and Larry Littlebird’s The Man Who Killed the Deer.

1984: Continuing upon Redford’s original vision of supporting independent storytellers across a wide range of artistic disciplines, the Institute expands its offerings to create the inaugural Playwrights Lab.

1985: The Institute officially takes over operations of the United States Film Festival, which had been hosted in Park City since September 1978. Under the direction of Festival director Tony Safford, this Institute’s inaugural Festival runs from January 18–27, and it features now-landmark projects like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple.

1986: The Institute begins to offer a separate Screenwriters Lab for emerging writers, as well as a Composers Lab.

Steven Soderberg at the 1989 Festival. ©1989 Sundance Institute

1989: The Institute hosts the first Sundance Film Festival: Tokyo to support cultural exchange between American and Japanese filmmakers and to share American independent films with Japan’s audiences.


Below, we talk about just a handful of the countless iconic projects from the 1980s that were incubated in our labs and/or programmed at the Sundance Film Festival. Stay tuned — later this month we’ll offer up a lengthy streaming watchlist of features that have come through the labs over the years.


Gregory Nava’s immigration drama El Norte was the first film to be workshopped at the inaugural Directors Lab in 1981, and in 1983, it became the first lab-supported project to be produced. The immigration drama was later released in the United States 1984, and it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1985 Academy Awards.


After French West Indian filmmaker Euzhan Palcy’s debut film, Sugar Cane Alley, earned her France’s distinguished César Award for best first work in 1984, Robert Redford personally invited her to attend the 1985 Directors Lab. At the Sundance Resort that summer, she workshopped her adaptation of the novel A Dry White Season, and a few years later, MGM produced the movie, making Palcy the first Black female director to helm a major Hollywood studio title.


Patrick Sheane Duncan attended the 1985 Directors Lab for 84 Charlie Mopic, an early example of the found footage genre. The project eventually screened at the 1989 Festival and was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards: one for Best First Feature and one for Best Screenplay.


Malia Scotch Marmo brought the screenplay Once Around to the 1987 Directors Lab. It then played opening night at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival directed by Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Cider House Rules).


J.F. Lawton attended the 1988 Directors Lab to workshop his script Three Thousand. After several rewrites that ultimately made the story considerably less dark, it eventually became the Julia Roberts–Richard Gere classic Pretty Woman in 1990.


Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Dramatic Audience Award at the 1989 Festival and went on to become the most widely successful independent film released up to this time.


Rob Epstein’s documentary The Times of Harvey Milk took home a Special Jury Prize at the 1985 Festival, and it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature later that year. In 2001, after the UCLA Film & Television Archive restored it, we screened it as part of the Festival’s From the Collection series, and in 2012, the film was chosen by the Library of Congress for inclusion in the National Film Registry.


Bill Duke’s The Killing Floor was the winner of the Festival’s Special Jury Prize in 1985, and it was an official selection at Cannes that same year. Its restoration — which was also supported by the Sundance Institute — played as a Cannes Classic in this summer’s Cannes Film Festival.

BEFORE YOU GO: Through the month of August, we’re looking to raise $40,000 to commemorate our 40th year as an Institute. All of the funds raised will go to supporting the visionary storytellers of tomorrow. Will you join us in standing for storytelling? Donate now.

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Alexis Chikaeze as Kai in 'Miss Juneteenth,' coming to digital platforms June 19

Channing Godfrey Peoples on a Bittersweet ‘Miss Juneteenth’ Release and the Urgency of Portraying Black Humanity on Screen

After premiering at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Channing Godfrey Peoples’s debut feature is hitting digital platforms this Juneteenth—the day for which the film is named and which is very close to the director’s heart. “I feel like I’ve been living Miss Juneteenth my whole life,” she says.
The June 19 holiday—which commemorates the day slavery was finally abolished in Texas (more than two years after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation was issued)—is celebrated in her hometown of Fort Worth with a deep sense of reverence and community, with barbecues, a parade, and a scholarship pageant for young Black women.

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