Catalyst

Catalyst

Catalyst is Sundance Institute’s film financing program. We aim to build a culture of partnership between independent investors and filmmakers; to unlock funding for ambitious new independent films; and to grow the community of indie-film supporters.

Catalyst’s year-round investor track serves new and experienced film funders through educational and cultural programming, highly curated financing opportunities, and ongoing engagement with the wider Sundance community. We offer new investors a guided entry into film financing, and we present our entire cohort with filmmaker and industry talks, social events, personalized support in developing partnerships with filmmakers, and access to exceptional projects through programs like Catalyst Forum, which features a curated slate of films seeking funds.

Catalyst’s filmmaker track offers tailored guidance on how to develop financing plans, build successful investor relationships, and effectively present projects for independent financing. We work with selected filmmakers through a rigorous, custom lab program as they prepare for Catalyst Forum, and we provide them with continued support throughout the lives of their projects.

The signature Catalyst Forum is where our investor and filmmaker tracks meet. Over three days at the Sundance Resort, filmmakers and investors connect through presentations, individual meetings, panels, and informal social moments. 

Since its founding in 2013, more than $45 million has been raised to support over 100 films through Catalyst.

Applications & Timeline

Catalyst applications are solicited by invitation only. We vet films prior to inviting official submissions to ensure that applicants meet our eligibility requirements and have a path to the final program. Please note the following deadlines:

January–March 2023—Applicant recruitment & outreach

March 14–May 2, 2023—Application period

July 2023—Projects selected

July–September 2023—Filmmaker preparations

September 24-27, 2023—Catalyst Forum

To inquire about the program or share an eligible project with us, contact catalyst@sundance.org.

Catalyst Forum Project Criteria

Catalyst Forum is an invitation-only opportunity for feature-length fiction and nonfiction film projects that meet the following criteria:

  • Team Requirements
    • Projects must have a strong producer with at least one feature credit attached. A producer and the director from each project must present together at Catalyst Forum.
    • Projects with at least one member of the above-the-line team who is a Sundance Institute alumni will be given strong preference. Sundance alumni status includes having taken a project through a Sundance Institute lab, granting fund, or fellowship program, or having exhibited prior work at the Sundance Film Festival.
    • We prefer projects that have at least one US-based member of the above-the-line team but will also consider international applicants.
  • Budget/Financing Plan Requirements
    • Project budgets must not exceed $3,000,000 USD, and budget gaps may not be smaller than $250,000 USD. Exceptions may be made on a limited and case-by-case basis.
    • Higher-budget films with interest in the program must have significant financing in place and must be able to clearly demonstrate why Catalyst is the best path for the project.
    • Projects must have a budget gap and be open to equity investments and/or granting contributions from multiple individual investors as part of their financing plan. Projects with partial financing in place are welcome and encouraged to apply. 
    • Catalyst investors must sit pari passu with other investors on the film. Filmmakers will be asked to share detailed terms and waterfall structure with the Catalyst team before acceptance to the program to ensure that Catalyst investors are subject to the same or equal terms.
    • Projects must have preliminary financing plans and be ready to actively engage with financiers.
    • Projects must have structures in place to accept funding by the time of the Catalyst, such as a fiscal sponsor, production company, and/or LLC.
  • Legal
    • Team must be able to provide filmmaker agreements and chain of title documents as applicable to the project (i.e., releases, rights option, writers agreement) prior to acceptance into the Catalyst program.
    • Filmmaker(s) must have legal representation by the time of Catalyst Forum.
  • Project Phase
    • Fiction only: Priority will be given to projects with a script in advanced development. Films that have tangible components in place, like a production start date or cast and crew attachments, tend to unlock more funding.
    • Nonfiction only: Projects can be in any phase of production—including development, pre-production, production, and post-production—but must have sample footage to share.
  • Additional Requirements
    • Catalyst team will assess the project’s feasibility and financial viability, as well as likelihood of success within the Catalyst community.
    • Catalyst is open to feature-length films only, with an intended running time of 60 minutes or more.
    • Projects must feature compelling, original subject matter and a distinctive directorial vision.
    • Resubmissions are permitted if a major element has changed.
    • Multiple submissions from the same team are discouraged.

Applications & Timeline​

Catalyst applications are solicited by invitation only. We vet films prior to inviting official submissions to ensure that applicants meet our eligibility requirements and have a path to the final program. Please note the following deadlines:

January–March 2023—Applicant recruitment & outreach

March 14–May 2, 2023—Application period

July 2023—Projects selected

July–September 2023—Filmmaker preparations

September 24-27, 2023—Catalyst Forum

To inquire about the program or share an eligible project with us, contact catalyst@sundance.org.

Application Overview

  • Project Team
    • Bios, contact information, past work samples
  • Project Details
    • Title, logline, synopsis (500-750 words), project status, timeline, director’s statement (500-750 words), producer’s statement (500-750 words)
    • Nonfiction only: Summary of film topic (500-750 words)
  • Project Budget & Financing Plan
    • Total budget, gap, detailed breakdown of financing already raised, full line-item budget, recoupment waterfall
    • Short answer questions on budget level (250 words), financing strategy (500 words), and funder engagement (250 words)
  • Project Distribution Goals
    • Short answer questions on distribution strategy and intended audience and marketing (250 words each)
    • Nonfiction only: Outreach, education & impact (500 words)
  • Project Legal
    • Short answer question on the legal standing of your project, including filmmaker agreements and chain of title documents (250 words)
  • Key Creative Materials
    • Fiction only: Full script PDF upload
    • Nonfiction only: Footage from submitted project (~5 minutes, 1-2 scenes, not a trailer/sizzle)
  • Optional Additional Assets

Filmmaker Deliverables​

If selected, filmmakers will collaborate with the Catalyst team and advisors through a rigorous preparations process during the weeks leading up to Catalyst Forum in the following ways:

  • Further developing a viable financing plan, including full project budget, recoupment waterfall, and crediting tiers.
  • Preparing and rehearsing a live project presentation led by the director and producer that includes the project’s story, footage or still images (if applicable), budget and financing overview, and distribution and outreach plan.
  • Creating a designed project deck to circulate to funders.
  • Building a communications plan to engage with interested and committed investors and grantors post-forum. Catalyst is also an educational program for funders, who expect to engage with and learn from each film team that they support financially. Sharing ongoing updates and access to business and strategic decisions with Catalyst funders is an expectation of this program.

FAQs

Catalyst investors are individuals, foundations, and small companies who fund films philanthropically and through equity investments. Investors range from experienced entertainment professionals to individuals and entities who are new to film financing. All Catalyst investors are vetted by Sundance Institute. Our investors vary in funding capacity and often participate in projects as minority funders.

We’re unfortunately not able to facilitate introductions to Catalyst investors for filmmakers who haven’t participated in the program. The projects that we put forward to our community have been fully vetted by our team and also engage in a highly rigorous preparations process with us before connecting with Catalyst investors.

Nonfiction and fiction projects have historically unlocked a wide range of funding from the Catalyst community. Individual funder contributions range from smaller grants ($10,000-$25,000 USD) to larger grants ($50,000-$100,000) and equity investments (ranging from $25,000-$1,000,000 USD). Participating in Catalyst does not guarantee funding.

Projects with partial financing in place are welcome and encouraged to apply. Selected films must be able to offer equity terms pari passu with any committed funding to date in order to align with the Catalyst program and investor community.

Note that we don’t invite projects with budget gaps under $250,000 USD to apply to Catalyst. Participating films frequently accept funding from multiple partners, which is an intentional structure and promise to the investors. The program preparation is also quite time intensive in an effort to set up each film for success within this model—so having more money to raise makes it more worthwhile for the filmmakers who come through, too.

To a similar end, projects that have already done substantial fundraising from Catalyst investors are less compelling prospects for us as they have already gotten exposure within the community and may not have much left to unlock from this group.

We have a budget cap of $3,000,000 USD but invite higher budget films to apply on a case by case basis. We typically like to see partial financing in place for projects over $3,000,000 USD and also will want to very clearly understand why Catalyst is the best path forward for these projects. Projects with much higher budgets aren’t positioned to succeed in the program—it’s important for our investors to understand the impact and value of their contributions on projects.

Catalyst Forum will feature a slate of 10-12 total projects.

The director and lead producer from each project must present together at Catalyst Forum. Unfortunately, due to both space and budget limitations, we cannot accommodate additional key creative team members.

Yes. Sundance Institute provides air travel, ground transportation from the Salt Lake City airport to the Sundance Mountain Resort and back, lodging, and meals at Catalyst for selected fellows.

If your project is selected, you are required to be present during the entire Catalyst Forum. The months of July and August will also require time-intensive work, including weekly one-hour phone calls and several additional hours of work per week on Catalyst Forum deliverables (i.e., project deck, financial plan, presentation script, other written materials). The preparations process will commence shortly after selections in mid-July.

The Catalyst preparations process is rigorous and highly collaborative. We assign each team an advisor who joins all weekly calls, and we offer extensive notes on project presentations, decks, budgets, business plans, and other written and visual materials. We additionally invite a pro bono lawyer to review each film’s financial materials and also offer guidance and resources on building successful investor relationships.

The Forum itself is a busy three days of film presentations, individually scheduled meetings, and informal social moments where funders and filmmakers connect to build partnerships and materially advance the projects.

We remain engaged with filmmakers who participate in Catalyst well beyond the Forum dates. We work closely with our active fellows as they turn Catalyst investor interest into commitment on the heels of the program but also support our alumni  throughout their progress to production and exhibition.

We require that Catalyst filmmakers report all funding sources, including any contributions to the project that come through the Catalyst investor community. We also ask that you share other key updates on your film such as entering production, festival and launch plans, and sales.

In addition, we will reach out for a formal written update on your project. This will be privately shared with the investor community as part of a comprehensive report on recent Catalyst projects. We may also ask you to reconfirm project details, including Catalyst investor contributions, and will request additional materials to supplement this update, such as links to press clippings.

Production legal is not required to apply, but selected projects must secure a lawyer shortly after acceptance into the program and must be ready to actively engage with financiers and enter into financing agreements by the time of Catalyst Forum. This includes having structures in place to accept funding (such as a fiscal sponsor or LLC) and having basic terms set.

Having a lawyer on board as you craft your financing plans during the Catalyst preparation process is extremely helpful, especially for less experienced filmmaking teams.

Before an official invitation to participate in the Catalyst Forum, filmmakers should be prepared to confirm clearances of subject’s participation, copyright/option agreement, director and producer agreements, LLC structure and decision-making rights for the project and all other rights questions tied to the project seeking funding.

Financing agreements are negotiated directly between filmmakers and investors, and no funding passes through the Institute. While Sundance Institute does not set deal terms or provide legal advice, the Catalyst team and external advisors may offer best practices and trends in investment and the market to help shape the filmmaking team’s direction here.

We provide Catalyst investors with a year-round curriculum that includes best practices in independent film financing. Additionally, in partnership with program advisors and a pro bono lawyer, we offer participating projects feedback on their financing plans and budgets through the Catalyst Forum preparation process.

After the Catalyst Forum, we support both Catalyst filmmakers and investors as they move from interest into contractual commitment, but the relationships and all negotiations are directly between filmmakers and investors from this point onwards.

Equity caps and backend structure are at the discretion of each filmmaking team. We work with selected films to increase the likelihood that their financial models both meet their own goals and will resonate with independent financiers.

Catalyst suggests the following approach for equity caps: Your film’s budget should account for all funding needs through delivery to a distributor—including equitable pay to both the director and producer. Your equity cap should be set at the portion of the budget that represents what the film team feels comfortable taking on as an investment, as informed by your distribution goals and the current market. It should also take into account what remaining portion of the budget must be raised in grants and if there are granting sources—both within and beyond Catalyst—to achieve this goal and close financing for the film.

Catalyst suggests the following approaches for backend split: While Catalyst prioritizes documentaries earlier on in their production and financing timelines, we occasionally accept a film with a smaller gap to close financing. When films have majority of funding in place as grants and are accepting investment at a late stage, we encourage filmmakers to structure the backend investor pool tied to full budget, rather than equity cap. When a film is going through Catalyst and seeking both investment and grants at an earlier stage, we encourage the traditional 50/50 backend split, which is respectful of the risk that independent investors bear in joining a film early on in its life and takes into account the high probability of film teams bringing on grantors through Catalyst.

Many Catalyst investors value official affiliations with the films that they fund in the form of credits, so building out appropriate crediting tiers is part of the Catalyst preparation process for selected films. Sundance Institute values the role of Producer and does not support financiers receiving Producer or Co-Producer credits, since these are earned working positions.

No. Participating in Catalyst does not increase your chances of screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Projects supported by Sundance Institute do not receive preferential treatment in the Festival selection process.

We do not announce Catalyst projects and also ask selected films to keep their participation confidential until after Catalyst Forum. We keep the Catalyst slate private so that we can build momentum and unlock the most from our investor community, ensuring that Catalyst funders get a first look at the Forum projects. 

Upon completion of the Forum, filmmakers are welcome to share their participation publicly.

All applicants will be notified of their status by email. Catalyst program staff may reach out to ask additional questions during the application period.

Due to the high volume of submissions, we are unfortunately not able to provide individualized feedback.

We require the full team in place in order to apply to first assess basic eligibility and because we also want to avoid situations where directors and producers rush into working relationships in order to qualify for Catalyst. We are looking for teams with solid partnerships who have had the time and space to really get to know each other and collaborate.

The aim of the producer feature requirement is to make sure that someone on the project has strong business instincts so that the film is set up for success at Catalyst. As you can imagine, complex financing scenarios arise at the Forum given the variety of funders we engage: Catalyst investors range in experience, capacities, and preferred types of investment.

Independent film financing in a program like Catalyst is as much about the people behind the film or the funding as the work itself, so the people who make up the film team and how they work with one another is a crucial part of succeeding in this program.

Multiple submissions from the same team end up in competition with each other, as we would not program two films by the same producing team onto the final slate. Filmmakers should prioritize their most front-burner project that also has a clear case for why Catalyst could uniquely take the film to the next level.

Films with distribution are eligible to apply, but we prioritize films without distribution (including American broadcast) in our review. This is primarily due to the greater funding needs of projects without distribution partners in place and additionally because films with a clear path for potential recoupment against investment with rights available typically gain more traction with Catalyst investors.

Catalyst is open to international projects, but we prioritize US films due to the lack of domestic governmental funding. We prefer projects that have at least one US-based member of the above-the-line team. In evaluating international submissions, what’s essential to us is that there is a meaningful path forward for these films to successfully fundraise at Catalyst. Our investor community is largely composed of American independent financiers who need to be able to meaningfully participate in projects on equal terms with other committed funders. There needs to be a clear path towards potential recoupment for American equity in order to qualify for Catalyst.

No, only feature-length projects are eligible, with an intended running time of 60 minutes or more.

We are primarily seeking fiction projects on the cusp of production and prioritize films with shooting scripts and tangible elements in place like a production start date, cast attachments, or partial financing. We will consider inviting earlier phase fiction films but largely focus on films beyond the development stage.

We are open to documentaries in all phases, and the timing of projects that we invite will likely span development, production and post. Docs that are very early on in development should have a more experienced team in place that is able to cite a strong body of past work.

We require a visual sample from your current project as part of the Catalyst nonfiction application. We want to see footage that will give us a sense of what the film might feel like. It’s important to us that the sample conveys a sense of the film’s style and artistic vision as well as the level of access you have to your subjects and that the story/subject can sustain a compelling feature-length film.

For the above reasons, we prefer scenes over teasers and trailers. We also ask that the total sample runtime not exceed approximately 5 minutes, though this is not a hard cap.

We are looking for projects with strong artistic visions that have solid teams behind them. Producing experience levels may vary but an interest in independent financing and a plan to get the film through production and to distribution are key. Alignment of vision and a strong partnership between director and producer is a must. We’re evaluating the teams as much as we are the films since independent financing decisions are as much about the filmmaking teams as the work itself and the focus of Catalyst is the partnership between funder and filmmaker. We frequently invite first-time directors, but it’s important to us that the producers on Catalyst projects are capable of working with independent funding models, especially since the financing scenarios that result from the Forum may be composed of multiple minority funders seeking to participate in the same project. To this end, it’s also key that the film team wants to work with individual financiers and that an independent financing model serves the project. So the ‘why Catalyst’ components of each application need to be clear. 

Catalyst has a unique opportunity to lift up artists and stories that come from outside of the mainstream that might not easily get funding from typical Hollywood sources. So while each team’s credentials will be key in assessing their applications, we also consider what kinds of films and filmmakers need an independent venue like Catalyst to materially advance. The Catalyst program invests in the careers of the filmmakers—introducing teams into the world of independent film financing—as much as it invests in the films themselves.

Ultimately, we want our slate to range in subject, style, and perspective—both so that the films represent a sample of the year in independent film and also so that the projects we invite aren’t competing with each other at the Forum. We’re not looking for any specific genre or topic—we want a diversity of projects that each have unique sensibilities and points of view. We also want to preserve both a sense of discovery and exceptionalism at Catalyst, mixing emerging talent with the most compelling new projects from established independent filmmakers.

Past Catalyst Projects

Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock

Director Cody Lucich
Producers Heather Rae, Gingger Shankar
Premiere 2018 Sundance Film Festival

Standing Rock, 2016: the largest Native American occupation since Wounded Knee. Thousands of activists, environmentalists, and militarized police descend on the Dakota Access Pipeline in a standoff between oil corporations and a new generation of Native warriors. This chronicle captures the sweeping struggle, spirit, and havoc of a people’s uprising.

Always in Season

Director Jacqueline Olive Producers Jacqueline Olive, Jessica Devaney Premiere 2019 Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency 

When 17-year-old Lennon Lacy is found hanging from a swing set in rural North Carolina in 2014, his mother’s search for justice and reconciliation begins, as the trauma of more than a century of lynching African Americans bleeds into the present.

Audrie & Daisy

Director Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Producers Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, Sara Dosa
Premiere 2016 Sundance Film Festival

After two high-school girls in different towns are sexually assaulted by boys they consider friends, online bullying leads each girl to attempt suicide. Tragically, one dies. Assault in the social-media age is explored from the perspectives of the girls and boys involved, as well as their torn-apart communities.

The Bad Kids

Director Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe
Producers Keith Fulton, Lou Pepe
Premiere 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking

At a remote Mojave Desert high school, extraordinary educators believe that empathy and life skills, more than academics, give at-risk students command of their own futures. This coming-of-age story watches education combat the crippling effects of poverty in the lives of these so-called “bad kids.”

Beach Rats

Director Eliza Hittman
Producers Brad Becker-Parton, Andrew Goldman, Drew P. Houpt, Paul Mezey
Premiere 2017 Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Dramatic Directing Award

An aimless teenager on the outer edges of Brooklyn struggles to escape his bleak home life and navigate questions of self-identity, as he balances his time between his delinquent friends, a potential new girlfriend, and older men he meets online.

Before You Know It

Director Hannah Pearl Utt
Producers Mallory Schwartz, Josh Hetzler, James Brown
Premiere 2019 Sundance Film Festival

A long-kept family secret thrusts codependent, thirtysomething sisters Rachel and Jackie Gurner into a literal soap opera. A journey that proves that you really can come of age, at any age.

Blowin' Up

Director Stephanie Wang-Breal
Producers Carrie Weprin
Premiere 2018 Tribeca Film Festival

Blowin’ Up looks at sex work, prostitution, and human trafficking through the lens of our nation’s first human-trafficking intervention court in Queens, New York.

Bull

Director Annie Silverstein
Producers Bert Marcus, Heather Rae, Audrey Rosenberg, Monique Walton, Ryan Zacarias
Premiere 2019 Cannes Film Festival

In a near-abandoned subdivision west of Houston, a wayward teen runs headlong into her equally willful and unforgiving neighbor, an aging bullfighter who’s seen his best days in the arena; it’s a collision that will change them both.

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