COVID-19 UPDATE ARCHIVE

May 13, 2020

Creating, connecting, and contributing
A few weeks ago, I read a letter from George Saunders to his students at Syracuse University. He pointed out that while we may not have experienced a pandemic quite like this before, this is not the first or the last time the world has been upended. “And always there have been writers to observe it,” he wrote, “and (later) make some sort of sense of it, or at least bear witness to it. It’s good for the world for a writer to bear witness, and it’s good for the writer, too.”

Between sickness, anxiety, crushing financial realities, and isolation, it’s not easy to make art in a pandemic. A recent survey from Americans for the Arts found that 95 percent of artists have lost income because of COVID-19. But even in the face of extraordinary hardship, artists are doing extraordinary things: the vast majority report that they have used their work to raise morale, help those who are struggling, or bring people together.

Over the last few weeks, we at Sundance have found ourselves passing around stories of artists who are finding new ways to provide hope and joy, bring people together, and lift up their communities. These stories have been a bright spot, and helped guide us as we navigate a tumultuous time. So we come to you today not with program updates or announcements but to hopefully pass along a little inspiration.

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    Artists are creating.
  • Boston-based film curator and accessibility consultant Mara Bresnahan met Lauren Schwartzman, the associate producer and assistant editor for Crip Camp, while both were at Sundance this year in support of the film. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Mara returned to her role as RN at Mass General Hospital. When Mara sent Lauren a portrait her friend Thyra Heder had created of the nurses on her unit, it inspired a mission: to engage a range of artists to create more portraits that would humanize and honor essential workers. Artists have leapt at the chance to use their talents as part of Essential Portraits, and portrait subjects describe feeling seen and appreciated in a unique and meaningful way.
  • While isolated in their homes, with work on hold, director Lance Oppenheim and filmmaker Max McGillivray realized they were both “itching to make something -- anything! -- and find ways to make use of our pent-up creative energy to help those in need.” Lance and Max invited artists around the world to create short films, post them online, and encourage audiences to donate to World Central Kitchen’s #ChefsForAmerica relief work. In the first few weeks of “Shelter Shorts,” they’ve received more than 300 original submissions. In Lance’s words: “Who knew there were so many ways to photograph one’s home/community!”
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    Artists are connecting.
  • In mid-March, filmmaker and Sundance Institute board member Ritesh Batra decided to use his regular writing break to connect with anyone who was feeling stranded at home and interested in talking about screenwriting. The response was so overwhelming that he came back two days later -- and the day after that, and the day after that. His Instagram Live sessions have drawn people from around the world to share favorite movies, writing tips, and recommended reading.
  • In the midst of the pandemic, writer and actor Sherry Cola realized she was far from the only Asian American experiencing “the same two things: unemployment and racism.” She decided to launch a series of interviews with members of her community to catch up and remind audiences that we’re all in this together. In Sherry’s words: “As much as we dig deep about how far Asians have come to prove we belong in this country and in this industry, I’m also discovering things like Jon M. Chu’s favorite films of all time or why Remy Hii loves Kevin Bacon. … Whether it’s human, whether it’s WiFi, we’re all realizing how important CONNECTION is.”
  • When filmmaker Sasha Wortzel halted production on her film and began sheltering in place on the Gulf Coast of Florida, she was overwhelmed by loss, collective grief, and uncertainty. She found a moment of respite watching the sunset each evening, and decided to share that moment with her friends and loved ones. “These livestreams are an offering of solidarity, a reflection on our deep entanglement, and a reminder that wherever we are, we are on this earth, and the sun will both set and rise again,” says Sasha.
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    Artists are contributing.
  • Musician Laura Karpman created Unison Orchestra in the midst of fear and uncertainty. “While we all crave to be together and make music,” she explained, “it is simply not feasible, nor responsible, at this time, and may not be safe for the foreseeable future. For the scoring world, the question is, ‘How can we still be together through music making?’” Along with conductor Marin Alsop, composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, and violinist Lisa Liu, she launched a virtual orchestra to bring together musicians, clients, and audiences. Laura sums it up this way: “It’s amazing what grit and technology can do!”
  • In the early days of the pandemic, Ro Haber helped bring together queer and trans women of color filmmakers to gather personal protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers in Los Angeles. They collected thousands of N95 and surgical masks, gowns, gloves, face shields, and shoe covers, and more than 100 gallons of hand sanitizer, and distributed them to local ERs. As the pandemic wore on, the doctors suggested they redirect their efforts to serve the most vulnerable populations. Today, working with lawyer and activist Megyung Chung, they’re raising money and putting together hundreds of survival kits for LA’s downtown homeless community. “Doing this work felt like a way to channel all our anger, fear, pathos, and grief into something actionable,” explains Ro. “It reminded me that we can find creative ways to support each other when larger governmental systems are failing, and it was inspiring to see how friends and strangers showed up to form a community of collective care.”
  • Inspired by the artists-on-behalf-of-artists activism of Elizabeth Swados, Sundance Theatre Lab alums Taylor Mac, Niegel Smith, and Morgan Jenness, along with Kristin Marting, Emily Morse, Blake Zidell, Tod Wohlfarth, Willa Folmar and a group of more than 50 other New York City artists launched Trickle Up NYC, a new grassroots subscription video platform that posts work from artists who are suffering from lost income. As Taylor says, “Trickle Up NYC is a network where you would see stuff you would never otherwise get to see. When else are you going to see the playwright read their entire play?”

As people everywhere continue to respond to this crisis, the actions of these artists and many others are a reminder that creativity, joy, resilience, and compassion are all around us, even in uncertain times. We look forward to continuing to lift up the stories of artists who are creating, connecting, and contributing: If you or someone you know is using art to make a difference, we’d love to hear from you; please share your project on Twitter or Instagram and tag us (@sundanceorg).

Last week, filmmaker, Sundance Institute alumnus, and Sundance Labs creative advisor Rodrigo García captured what so many are feeling in a beautiful letter to his father, Gabriel García Márquez: “I’m still in a fog. It seems for now that I’ll have to wait for the masters, present and future, to metabolize the shared experience. I look forward to that day. A song, a poem, a movie or a novel will finally point me in the general direction of where my thoughts and feelings are buried. In the meantime, the planet keeps turning and life is still mysterious, powerful, and astonishing.”

We’re grateful to everyone using art to lead the way forward and shine a light on all that is mysterious, powerful, and astonishing.

Thank you,

Keri Putnam
Executive Director

To read past COVID-19 updates from the Institute, please visit our archive.

Artist Support

Many of our summer programs, including our labs, are moving onto our digital platform, Sundance Co//ab.

A Note from the Sundance Co//ab Team

We have thought a lot about our programming and really want to keep it going for the many of you who are already planning to participate in our upcoming events.To make it a bit easier for everyone for the next few months, we are going to make all of our member webinars and Master Classes free to attend. We will also be adding a forum for your questions and concerns at this time where we encourage you to support one another, to tell your stories, and to be generous as always with listening and advice. We will soon be adding a focus for any ideas, questions or concerns you want to share with us, where questions will be answered by Sundance Institute staff and artist mentors, advisors, and alumni.

Our team has been thinking deeply about the programming we will roll out this month to help support you. Please check the newsletter where we'll add our special events and features to the top. There will be new programs as we take some of our live programs digital, and also special events dedicated to addressing the impact of the pandemic and the economic slowdown on the creative community.

We are all in this together and will do everything we can to ensure that this community supports you and your work. We look forward to your energy, creativity and brilliance at this time, so please use the forum to let us know what you need.

Michelle Satter
Founding Director, Feature Film Program

Tara Hein-Phillips
Chief Product Officer, Sundance Co//ab

Program Updates

Sundance Institute labs, intensives, and sessions will take place on our digital platform, Sundance Co//ab, through August 31, 2020.

Applications are still open. Learn more about the latest Sundance Institute opportunities as we continue our commitment to offering dynamic programming that supports artists at every step of the creative journey.

Sundance Film Festival: London to be rescheduled
Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong to be rescheduled

April 17, 2020


Announcing the Sundance Institute COVID-19 Respond and Reimagine Plan with $1Million in Emergency Relief for Independent Artists and Organizations

Being an independent artist means daring to tell bold, authentic stories with no strings attached and no compromises. It means taking risks, centering new perspectives, searching for meaning, and deepening our connection to the world around us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has cast a bright light on the importance of art, reminding us that, as Joan Didion famously wrote, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It has also laid bare the vulnerability of independent artists, who are mostly freelance workers and often left out of the current support systems despite their cultural and economic impact. Further, our attention is called to examine the systems and structures across our field that were already stressed and now face serious threats, from independent cinemas to acquisitions for smaller and risk-taking independent films.

To put it bluntly: There can be no return to business as usual. When history looks back, this will either be the moment when we invested in artists, making it possible to turn what we’re feeling during these scary and surreal times into powerful, lasting creative work -- or it will be the moment we lost a generation of art and artists because we failed to support them when and how they most needed it. That’s why it is so urgent and essential to dig deep, even if it means making sacrifices, and act now to ensure that the world on the other side of the pandemic is one that’s full of art, storytelling, and vibrant, diverse perspectives.

Listening to artists and colleagues across our field, we recognize the need for an urgent response to the current crisis combined with longer-term reimagination of the ways we support artists and design the systems that enable their work to reach audiences. Today we are announcing part of our urgent response, as we continue to work towards longer and sustainable solutions.

Three things are clear: First, it is essential that significant resources go directly to artists who are struggling financially, in order to support their basic needs and their work. Second, the need right now is greater than any one artist or group and disproportionately affects artists from historically underrepresented communities. Third, it’s clear that collaboration and collective impact will be needed to address the extent of the challenge.

This moment calls for a radical shift in strategy in the way we support independent artists in film, media, and theatre. We are launching a $1 million urgent fund to support the immediate needs of artists in our community, as well as other filmmakers in need and organizations that share our focus on inclusive storytelling.

One-third of the fund will support Sundance Institute-curated artists, while two-thirds will be dedicated to emergency support for the wider community of independent artists, deployed in collaboration with partner nonprofit organizations.

  • Immediate support for 100 Sundance Institute-curated artists, across disciplines and at all stages of development. Grants will be given to the 2020 spring and summer Lab participants to be used for artists' emergency funds or for project development. Each of these artists will also receive creative and strategic support through Sundance Institute’s Lab programs, which have transitioned from in-person gatherings to events hosted on our digital platform, Sundance Co//ab.
  • Emergency financial support to artists across the U.S. We have joined an incredible group of arts organizations and leading national grantmakers who have partnered at this unprecedented moment to launch a cross-disciplinary, needs-based fund called Artist Relief that will distribute funds to artists as quickly and efficiently as possible. Our partnership with Artist Relief will provide our experience and support to film, media, and theatre
  • Emergency financial support to U.S. and international independent artist organizations focusing on historically underrepresented communities, to be deployed by these organizations both as regrants to artists and to strengthen the organizations themselves in their ongoing work. Our peer organizations, funders, and artists will nominate organizations who will then be invited to apply. The final selection will be made by the Institute and a panel of outside advisors. Applications will be evaluated on organizational impact and artist community reach.

In addition to financial resources, we have identified through our artist feedback urgent needs for support and training on several key topics -- including mental health, community building, and distribution and marketing strategy. We are creating a series of free public and private offerings for independent artists on Sundance Co//ab, which launched earlier this year, and is a community for global storytellers to learn, share work, and find resources. We have been particularly inspired to see that Co//ab users have grown four-fold in the last month, now reaching 50,000 people in more than 190+ countries.

For additional details on the criteria and application processes, visit our Artist Opportunities page. Applications are now open for the Artist Relief funds and can be found at www.artistrelief.org.

This is just the first step -- but it is an important one. We are extraordinarily grateful to our long-standing foundation and corporate donors for allowing us the opportunity to use their generous funding in a responsive, urgent way. We extend our thanks in particular to the Sandra and Malcolm Berman Family Foundation, The Kendeda Fund, Luminate, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Open Society Foundations, Sandbox Films, and Southwest Airlines. We are also grateful to the teams at Sundance Institute who have worked hard to build out this new plan. We are still raising funds to support the immediate needs of artists and address the longer-term impacts on our industry, and we are encouraged to see so many people joining these efforts.

As so many people the world over are reimagining what it means to be connected to one another, this is an important moment to send a message to independent artists: You are not alone. You are part of a resilient community -- a community that will continue to be a much-needed source of refuge, empathy, inspiration, and collective power in the days and weeks to come.

In solidarity and gratitude,

Keri Putnam
Executive Director

Michelle Satter
Founding Director, Feature Film Program

Tabitha Jackson
Festival Director


March 24, 2020

Reimagining the future together

In these tumultuous times, artists have been on our minds, along with all of our friends and colleagues in arts, entertainment, and media whose jobs and organizations have been hard hit by the pandemic and accompanying economic instability.

We are inspired by everyone who is using this time of fear and uncertainty to find meaning in the form of poems, stories, essays, images, and ideas. The scale and urgency of this challenge are extraordinary, but so are the resilience, generosity, and community we have seen from our global community of artists. If we can approach this moment with that spirit, and listen to those who embody it, we can weather this crisis with our humanity intact and reimagine a future where we are more connected than ever before.

It’s clear from talking to artists and colleagues at nonprofits and in business that this moment calls for innovation, flexibility, and collaboration. Like many organizations, we at Sundance have spent the last weeks adapting to these circumstances that are so far beyond our control: transitioning teams to remote work, rethinking upcoming events, and preparing to weather the economic impact on our work, our community, and independent film and performing arts writ large. We wanted to share an update on where we are right now, and will continue to communicate going forward.

  • We have made the decision to reimagine the 58 live programs we had planned through August 2020. While these events will no longer be in-person gatherings, one thing that will never change is our core mission of lifting up artists and independent voices. Among the programs affected are the 2020 season of summer Labs, which have been running each year since 1981 at our home at the Sundance Resort in Utah and, in the case of our Film Music Program, at Skywalker Ranch. This decision also applies to our full slate of planned workshops and intensives. The Sundance Film Festivals in London and Hong Kong have been postponed, with new dates for those live programs still pending.
  • We will adapt most of our programs to offer meaningful and uninterrupted support through our digital platform for artists, Sundance Co//ab. We are grateful to our funders, partners, and amazing staff for their creativity and collaboration in determining the best way forward for each program. It was exciting to see our first adapted live program, on the subject of making and launching a short film, on Sundance Co//ab last Friday. Supported by the Knight Foundation, and originally planned for an audience of 120 in San Jose, California, more than 1,600 people from all over the world registered to participate in its online iteration.
  • We have opened Sundance Co//ab’s webinars, member Q&As, and masterclasses, previously available only to paid members, to anyone who is interested, at no cost. Sundance Co//ab provides timely resources, opportunities, feedback, intimate learning sessions, and larger-scale live group interactive experiences. We will continue to provide programming, working together with nearly 50 nonprofit and creative community partner organizations and alumni to serve and benefit independent artists.

    We are excited about the potential to gather independent creators on Sundance Co//ab at a time when many are in need of community, mentorship, inspiration, and collective action. We’re happy to report that artists are already taking advantage of these resources: Prior to this crisis, Sundance Co//ab reached more than 250,000 creators (including serving nearly 35,000 free members) across over 150 countries around the world each month. In the last two weeks, sign-ups have nearly doubled. We invite all of you to visit Sundance Co//ab and appreciate any feedback you may have.
  • We will deepen and expand our core work of supporting artists in new ways. We recognize that individual artists will need strategic advice and direct financial support, and as we manage the fiscal challenges, we have preserved and set aside a fund for artist support, and are working now to determine how best to provide assistance in this challenging moment. Our staff program leads will share the specifics directly with artists in their communities, with approaches tailored to meet the needs of the artists.
  • Coalition-Building: In collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, we are expanding and accelerating a previously-planned initiative around field sustainability to meet urgent needs that have been raised by artists and peer arts organizations. Through the Arts Endowment, we are launching biweekly virtual field meetings starting this week dedicated to addressing these timely problems. We'll back this with an open platform to be launched in the coming days to collate shared resources, communication tools, and hubs to keep artists and organizations connected, such as this Sundance Co//ab collection of Resources We Love.

    In addition, our joint initiative with the Arts Endowment includes a national research committee to gather and conduct relevant, actionable studies and data collection, particularly regarding the economic and social impact of the coronavirus on artists. This builds on the incredible work led by the Arts Endowment as part of their ongoing support of field research and convenings.
  • Collective Action: As we prepare for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, we recognize the seismic shifts that are already happening in our field, and the fact that bold, fresh thinking is required. We are in conversations with other film festivals and nonprofits to share ideas, and to ensure that we’re eliminating duplicative, expensive efforts and working as collectively and efficiently as possible to support the filmmakers whose Festival premieres and releases didn’t happen this spring, and those whose films are in suspended states of production. We will strive to adapt to new challenges as we go, knowing that, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Finding our way through this situation as individuals and organizations -- and as a field -- is difficult, but it is also an opportunity to recognize and draw strength from the fact that we are all in this together. I have never been prouder to work with such a passionate, dedicated, and creative team of colleagues. We are committed to collective action and impact, to a spirit of experimentation, and to the very hard work ahead maintaining the health and vitality of Sundance and its mission in the face of this adversity.

More than 80 years ago, Bertolt Brecht asked and answered a question that has been on many of our minds these last several weeks:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.

We know many of you in our larger community, along with others around the world, are facing similar challenges, and we stand with you. We are immensely grateful for your support, and we look forward to the singing that will no doubt emerge from these dark times.

Keri