Building on Tradition in a New Era: Michelle Satter on Reimagining Sundance Institute's Summer Labs

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Fellows participate in Sundance Institute's summer Labs digitally for the first time.

Michelle Satter is the director of Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program, a post she has held since the Institute was founded in 1981. In the letter below, she offers insights into how the Institute's signature Labs have been carefully adapted and reimagined to go digital on Sundance Co//ab.


For the thousands who gather in Park City each winter, the Sundance Film Festival is the most visible part of Sundance Institute. But the heart of Sundance Institute’s work, indeed our founding work, begins each summer at the Sundance Resort in the mountains of Utah, and continues year-round with the nurturing of diverse, dynamic voices. For nearly four decades, Sundance Institute’s Labs, founded by Robert Redford, have brought together accomplished artists and promising new storytellers to work rigorously and creatively on their projects as part of a vibrant community. In this moment shaped not only by the continued concerns of the pandemic, but also by painful reminders of the pervasiveness of systemic racism, providing a place for artists to tell their stories, make meaning, and make change takes on a renewed urgency and importance.

The Sundance Labs are a place to learn, grow, discover, and -- yes -- fail, and continue to learn, surrounded by nature, and far from the pressures of deadlines, deliverables, and commercial demands. Again and again, participants report that what makes the Lab experience so unique is the supportive creative community, the generosity and expertise of the creative advisors, and the ability to leave behind the distractions of everyday life and immerse themselves in their projects.

As we considered how to proceed with this summer’s Labs in light of COVID-19, it became abundantly clear how much artists stood to lose if we postponed them until it is safe to travel and be together in person. And because Sundance Institute’s Labs have always sought culturally relevant projects and artists driven by urgency to tell their story, we felt it was particularly critical to move forward, bringing everyone together virtually on our digital platform, Sundance Co//ab, rather than on the mountain.

This summer 104 artists have been selected, and thousands more will be able to experience advisor presentations and conversations through Sundance Co//ab. Our support for these artists has included digital expressions of:

Designing and building these experiences has been an opportunity to stretch new muscles; a refreshing and imaginative process for all involved, and the new format has been a successful experiment in creating digitally a nourishing community and creative space for artists. We want to share a few of our takeaways as we reimagine decades of tradition and program-building.

  1. Adapt to the Moment: Listening to the artists about what they need is more essential than sticking to your own set plan. That means working in an agile way and being willing to pivot quickly if that’s the best way forward. In the Directors Lab, we couldn't offer the opportunity for shooting scenes. But we heard from the Fellows about what they needed and redesigned aspects of the Lab to bring a wider range of advisors in on topics of interest. One new exercise of presenting the “world of their films” through images and sound led to major creative discoveries for the Fellows and brought the community together in a powerful way.
  2. Broaden Access: With new formats come new opportunities. Without the limits of physical space, we have found that we can expand the audience for presentations that originate in our Labs. We will be making selected Lab sessions widely accessible on Sundance Co//ab to include conversations with writer/director Kasi Lemmons, editor Dylan Tichenor, writer/director Rick Famuyiwa, and actor Ed Harris, among many others.
  3. Break Boundaries: Embrace the fluidity of digital space. Usually our Labs for each discipline are separate, but this year all the artists had the chance to have collaborative conversations across a wide range of disciplines during our “digital chairlifts.” We also introduced the new Fellows to the alumni community of past Lab Fellows and hosted our first all-participant gatherings: a collective opening circle, our first-ever digital Creative Tensions, and in August, we will hold a collective closing circle.
  4. Slow It Down: Online programming requires a different pace but still allows for meaningful connection. We’ve found that participants need more breaks -- and longer breaks -- to refresh and recharge, and we’re learning to build in breathing room and space for spontaneity when we gather online. Without the chance to “walk in the room,” chitchat, or wind down like we might in a real gathering space, we focused on ensuring that our sessions were interactive and engaging.
  5. Ritual Builds Community: Not every in-person experience has a literal online adaptation. It’s a creative opportunity to recreate some of the sacred moments of Labs, from our welcome and closing rituals to the blessing in Elk Meadow. These traditions have been at the heart of the in-person experience of Labs. As we work in this new space, we are focused not on recreating out of nostalgia, but adding to it, building and defining new rituals that have a specific power in the community and a role to play in creating the right environment for our artists. We’ve loved discovering new platforms for visual collaboration, casual conversations between participants, and hosting digital “nature walks” and guided tours.
  6. Living Our Values: This is just as important online as it is offline. We are working hard to be intentional and inclusive. We’re excited about opportunities for expanding accessibility within the virtual space. We continue with an even greater commitment to include artists from underrepresented communities and perspectives. It starts from the curation process—who is in the “room,” from Fellows to advisors to program staff, knowing that we have more work to do here. We also encourage Fellows and advisors to interact as peers, and to embrace each Fellow's story and vision and make that the guiding force for the creative work of the Lab.

In this time when so many are isolated, it’s energizing to be able to come together as a community, even if that togetherness looks a little bit different than it has in the past. It's also heartening that many artists have been craving moments to "work" and that the Labs have provided them with the structural opportunity to do so. We believe that not only can art continue through this tumultuous moment in our history -- it must. Where would we be without projects like Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Dee Rees’s Pariah, and Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry; documentaries like Yance Ford’s Strong Island, Petra Costa’s The Edge of Democracy, and Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht’s Crip Camp; new-media projects like Roger Ross Williams’s Traveling While Black; or Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's musical Fun Home -- all of which were nurtured in our Labs?

We’re grateful to embrace the opportunity that the digital environment offers to support artists across their career spectrum, and to help build a vibrant network of fiercely independent and diverse storytellers who will change and challenge us in the months, weeks, and years to come.

In closing, we thank our extended community for all you do, and for supporting this work that is at the heart of who we are as an organization.

In gratitude,

Michelle Satter

Founding Director, Feature Film Program


The nonprofit Sundance Institute's programs—including the summer Labs—are funded in part via donations from people like you. We hope you'll stand with us by making a donation to support these efforts today.


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Fellows participate in Sundance Institute's summer Labs digitally for the first time.