©2019 Sundance Institute | Photo by Carolina Lindsay
By Carrie Lozano, Director, Documentary Film and Artist Programs
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work.
Despite the proliferation of distribution platforms, nonfiction independents find themselves with shrinking revenue streams and a diminished pool of philanthropic funding. This reality has led to an ongoing discussion among the nonprofit artist support community about the value of project funding versus direct support of individual artists and mediamakers. As nonprofit organizations, we understand the immense value of unrestricted funding: What if under-resourced nonfiction storytellers had access to those resources too? We at the Sundance Institute are about to find out.
While project-based funding will always remain core to the Institute’s work, we are honored and privileged to pilot direct individual support through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship, with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) as part of the American Rescue Plan, which is providing economic relief to a wide swath of Americans. Our colleagues at Firelight Media and the Independent Television Service are also launching humanities initiatives as a result that will greatly expand the nonfiction field’s humanities-based work.
Led by Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs, Director of Institute Granting, in collaboration with humanities experts, the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship will be open to individuals at all phases of their careers producing and/or directing humanities-focused feature-length documentary films, nonfiction audio/podcast projects, and nonfiction emerging media. Selected mediamakers will receive monthly stipends of $5,000 per month over the course of 12 months. Grantees will be paired with paid humanities advisors to support them throughout the year with dedicated mentorship, project advice, and other tailored non-financial support. Applicants can apply between October 15 and December 1, 2021. Together, the Sundance Institute, ITVS, and Firelight Media will create opportunities for more than 75 humanities mediamakers.
While the Institute will consider all humanities-related projects that meet the fellowship criteria, the NEH’s “More Perfect Union” initiative is timely and inspiring, as it encourages mediamakers to explore both the founding and ongoing transgressions of our nation, as well as the promise of its founding ideals. Applicants are welcome, but not required, to use it as a framework.
This partnership also reflects and builds on several Institute priorities: to develop and support underrepresented makers and stories; to elevate, explore, and protect democratic principles; and to harness the power of the Institute’s commitment to creative mediamakers across disciplines.
We hope that this fellowship seeds powerful and resonant humanities-based projects that meaningfully contribute to the public record and discourse, but we also look forward to what we will learn and share with the field about the impact and durability of sustainability funding.
After 40 years, the Sundance Institute’s commitment to independent storytellers is unwavering. During the pandemic, we reimagined much of our support to buttress the artist support ecosystem, as well as artists in distress. Our partnership with the NEH will purposefully expand our community and the focus of our work during a time of both historic challenges and extraordinary possibilities.