"Breathe In, Breathe Out"
Sundance. Since the Festival’s humble beginnings in 1978, the name has become synonymous with boundary-pushing filmmaking of all shapes and forms — to such an extent that a common goal amongst aspiring independent filmmakers is to make it there, someday. As the Festival has grown in size and scope, however, “getting into Sundance” has become an increasingly difficult proposition for that particular demographic, especially as digital filmmaking tools have given more people than ever the ability to make a movie. Sometimes, young filmmakers with potential could use a boost, and that’s where Sundance Ignite comes in: a one-of-a-kind yearlong fellowship program designed to nurture those of us who are just finding our feet in this wild industry.
In late 2016, I was fortunate to be one of 15 Ignite Fellows selected for the 2017 program, and after watching all the winning films, I was struck not only by the diversity of the Fellows’ backgrounds, but also by the variety of our ideas and sensibilities. Seeing these short films made me eager to meet their makers — a prospect just as exciting, maybe even more so, than attending the Festival itself.
But hey, the Sundance Film Festival is pretty cool too. On January 24, after we wound our way up the mountain roads into Park City, it quickly became clear that Sundance is a place like no other. Here, tens of thousands of people, all passionate about storytelling, converge in the snow to screen, share, inspire, network, and celebrate. Ignite gave us Fellows an eye-opening window into that experience, while also providing a unique selection of events and talks tailored just for us.
Aside from seeing as many movies as our hearts desired, we got to have intimate conversations with Festival filmmakers in the “film chats” series, during which we picked the brains of writers, directors, and producers behind this year’s Competition films. One of the chats I attended was for Gerard McMurray’s Burning Sands — a feature film produced by my Ignite mentor, Jason Michael Berman — and it was enlightening to hear all the inside stories about how a low-budget independent feature comes together. Later in the Festival, when I had some one-on-one time with Jason, he took an instant interest in seeing a cut of my most recent short and reading a TV pilot I’ve been working on. Based on the positivity of that first meeting, I’m really excited to see how our monthly talks contribute to my ongoing creative goals.
Other Ignite events included a panel on distribution and a meet-and-greet with Sundance Institute staff, but my favorite, by far, was the pitching session. All 15 of the Fellows had the opportunity to pitch new projects to the mentors in a group environment, followed by feedback. Hearing the other Fellows’ pitches was a tremendous bonding experience, reinforced by the educational value of the mentors’ advice about our presentations. Learning to pitch, and pitch well, is a vital skill for finding success as a filmmaker, and during this session — by listening to people who have been there, done that — I learned valuable lessons about what makes people pay attention to an idea. Sometimes, a good idea isn’t enough. Often, how you convey the idea matters just as much.
In the end, though, nothing was better than developing both friendships and professional relationships with 14 other gifted young moviemakers. Aside from having new friends and contacts in my neck of the woods on the East Coast and a few more elsewhere in the United States, I now know filmmakers from Greece, Colombia, Venezuela, and England. We all got very close in a very small amount of time, and there’s already a distinct collaborative spirit in the group. Since the Festival, we’ve sent each other rough cuts of new projects, script drafts, and more. Continuing to know and possibly work with these artists for as long as possible will be a privilege. The Sundance Ignite fellowship program made that possible.