Here’s What the Sundance Team Is Looking For in Your Artist Application

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It can be an arduous, often inscrutable process to find and secure creative support. As part of Sundance Institute's online learning community, Sundance Co//ab—and in an effort to demystify the application experience—Sundance Institute's team of artist program staff convened to talk about the myths, insights, and realities of applying for labs and grants.

These are the people who know the ins and outs of the Sundance Institute labs and application process, as well as other means of artist support within the organization. Below, we hear from Ilyse Mckimmie (Feature Film), Anne Lai (Creative Producing), Maya Solis (Indigenous Program), Kristin Feeley (Documentary Film), Peter Golub (Film Music), Jennifer Goyne Blake (Episodic), and Meredith Lavitt (Ignite).

Q: What makes a good applicant, and what are some common application mistakes to avoid?

Ilyse McKimmie: “What’s appealing to us is someone who approaches us and really has a clear appetite to do the creatively rigorous work on their project. Something that’s sometimes less appealing to us is someone who seems to be searching just for the Sundance stamp of approval that they feel like just being selected for a lab will sort of clear the path for them to get their movie made or launch their career. We’re looking for people who can communicate both the strength of their project, the passion for the story that they’re telling, the understanding that there’s an urgency to tell the story…”

Anne Lai: “We have a lot of essay questions in our process of looking at applicants for the producing lab, and a lot of that is: What is the relationship to the material that they might be applying with? One of things you can sort of sniff out and feel out is when someone is telling you what they think you want to here. And I think one of the things that is often the most difficult thing to do is to write from a really genuine, authentic place.

“We’re talking about producers with a capital ‘P.’ So a producer who is, as one of our advisors often calls it, ‘soup-to-nuts.’ They are part of the creative engine behind putting the material together. That might be about finding the director, that might be about the director approaching them, but they are an integral part of the vision and helping create that vision.”

Maya Solis: “There have been times when I’m reading an application and the personal statement is less than stellar, the bio is less than stellar, and then I get to the the script and I'm absolutely blown away. It’s one of those things where we really are looking at you holistically; we really are trying to get a sense of who you are as a person. We’re really seeing a big change and a big shift in how Indigenous peoples are distributing their work. We don’t particularly see ‘audience’ as just a Hollywood/New York audience anymore.”

Jennifer Goyne Blake: “We don’t take projects that are nice and tidy and just need a bow, because we do so much work within the lab. For us, just in terms of the first five pages, if we don’t know what the show is about, that’s a big determination. Because it’s hard to make a show and sustain multiple episodes, we’re really looking to see if the writer is able to articulate where they think this series is going.

“We look at an artist or a writer who wants to collaborate. It’s impossible to be in the TV industry without having lots of opinions and being able to navigate the sandbox. I have such respect for artists who can go make their movie, and then show it, and say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ That’s just not the case in television. We always say we’re in the business of a marathon; we’re not in the business of a sprint.”

Kristin Feeley: “Most filmmakers are applying for a grant in support of the production of their project. When they’re coming to us they may be in early stages, and because it’s reality, you don’t quite know what’s going to unfold. So in the grant application, folks might lead more with the issue and convince you in terms of their grounding in an issue and their understanding of the world around them. But what we’re really interested in is story. We want to know that you’re making a film and have a vision – a strong and bold vision. So we’re asking you in a way to articulate and imagine what that story might be, while also knowing that you’re leaving room for what’s unfolding.”

Peter Golub: “There are a couple of things that we’re looking for, and one is a high level of craft. And that can be in any field or any type of music—in fact we’re looking for a wide range of different musical backgrounds. [It’s also important that we] hear the person’s voice and that there’s something authentic about their voice. In the field of film music, for better or worse, you’re often asked to be a chameleon, and you’re often hired specifically to sound like somebody else. There are a lot of people who do that really well, and I have a high respect for that, but that’s not what we're looking for.

“We’re always looking for that spark of originality. And I don’t mean originality like something flashy or brand new, but something authentic. Also tied to that is a sense that this music is going to work in a context of storytelling, that it has some kind of narrative capability. A lot of music is great, but it couldn’t possibly work in a film—there’s too much going on or calls too much attention to itself.”

Q: Rejection is part and parcel to being a creative person. How should one metabolize rejection in the case of the Sundance Labs?

Meredith Lavitt: “Just this morning I had a fellow reach out to me—they had submitted their documentary for the fund and it got rejected. She handled it so graciously and [said], ‘I want to use this as a learning opportunity and really try to understand what’s not working for funders with this project. What do we need to do?’ So really using it as a learning opportunity.

“Rejection is always hard, because you clearly really want to get into a lab or get funding or get into the Festival, but there’s always an opportunity to improve. There are a lot of festivals out there, and there’s a home for your film. In terms of funding and a lab, as Peter mentioned, keep reapplying. Sometimes it just wasn’t the right year or wasn't the right mix—it’s not personal.”

Kristin Feeley: “I often tell filmmakers two things. One is, ‘Don’t put this movie on your credit card.’ The other is, ‘Don’t take no as no; hear it as not yet.’ Because stories are evolving, your work is evolving, and particularly when you’re applying to the [Documentary Fund] where statistically we fund about 2% of the applications we receive—that’s incredibly competitive, and you have to meet that level of competition with the evolution of your project.”

Ilyse McKimmie: “I’ve heard a lot of recommendations to keep reapplying, but I think for the Feature Film Program, I recommend that you reapply with a project only when you’ve made changes to the material that feel significant. And that doesn’t necessarily mean in terms of your plot, because your story is your story, but we want you to feel like you’ve cracked something open or made discoveries that in someway make the material feel transformed or new to you.

“I also think that there are times if you’ve applied with a project three, four times... it’s enormously valuable to say, ‘This isn’t the moment for this project,’ or ‘I’m not able to communicate my vision at this moment with this project. I’m gonna turn my attention to something new.’ And there’s no shame in that. There are times when the artist struggles, and that’s part of being an artist. It doesn’t mean the work that you put in is wasted.”

Peter Golub: “I think you need a very thick skin in the arts. In all aspects of it. This thing that keeps coming up about not taking it personally is very important. When you don’t get something you want, you just have to look at it and say, ‘What happened here? So and so didn’t accept me for this fellowship.’ It doesn’t mean my work is bad; it doesn't mean I’m not going to get anywhere.

“I urge people to reapply. For our program, oftentimes people don’t get in the first, second, third, or even fourth time. It’s very important, though, to change the application and not keep sending the same material. Because you’d be surprised – the people who listen on our selection committee, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that piece from last year.’ People do remember these things. You want to show that your work is ongoing, you’re growing, you’re improving, and you’re seriously engaged in what you’re doing.”

Takeaways for Applicants

  • Convey and articulate a passion and commitment for your project.
  • Embrace the idea that the labs are designed to dig into the creative process as opposed to accelerate it.
  • Write and speak from a place of authenticity.
  • Don’t force it: Honest voices and authentic storytelling shine through when they’re there.
  • Audiences are as diverse as storytellers. Your work does not need to fit the confines of the typical Hollywood/NYC audience base.
  • Your project isn’t expected to be polished, but it should have clear direction within its plot and/or character development.
  • Focus less on the issue or subject matter and more on the story and your vision.
  • Send only your best music samples that represent your original voice.

This story was originally published at an earlier date; it as since been updated.


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