“Risk...can be the catalyst that propels you forward.”
A Man and his Motorcycle
Robert Redford happens upon the beautiful Provo Canyon and purchases the land that will later become a center for indie filmmaking.
The Place That Started It All
On a cross-country motorcycle trip, Robert Redford is inspired by the remote location and wildness of Provo Canyon and the majestic Mt. Timpanogos. He purchases two acres and builds a small cabin with his own hands.
The Name "Sundance"
Redford purchases 5,000 acres in the same area and names the land Sundance, after his role in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. That same year, he opens Sundance Mountain Resort to the public and designates a vast majority of the land as a wilderness preserve.
A Sense of Place for Emerging Filmmakers
Redford establishes the Sundance Institute to bolster the field of independent storytelling and help emerging artists hone their craft.
Founding of Sundance Institute
Robert Redford gathers a group of colleagues and friends at Sundance, Utah, to examine if an institute could be created that reasserts the importance of craft, story, and the human being in the art and business of making movies. The meeting marks the beginnings of the nonprofit Sundance Institute.
The First Lab
At the resort, the Sundance Institute holds its first lab for 15 independent filmmakers to develop their original projects in the company of such advisors as Sydney Pollack and Waldo Salt. By providing resources in an environment that supports the creative process, the lab encourages each filmmaker to tell an original story in his or her own unique voice.
El Norte Brings New Audiences to Indie Film
Gregory Nava’s El Norte becomes the first lab-supported film to be produced. Critically acclaimed, El Norte tells of the plight of undocumented immigrants from Guatemala and their journey to the United States. The film earns Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas a nomination for the Academy Award for best writing.
From Screen to Stage
Forming what would later become the Institute’s Theater Program, the Utah Playwrights Conference formally becomes the Sundance Playwrights Laboratory.
Staking a Claim for Independents
The Institute finds its platform for independent voices by holding its first film festival, while expanding year-round artist program offerings and widening its reach outside of Utah.
The First Film Festival
The Sundance Institute assumes creative and administrative control of the 1985 U.S. Film Festival (later renamed the Sundance Film Festival) and expands it to a 10-day showcase for new American independent narrative and documentary films, in addition to a program of international films.
Creative Exchange in Latin America and Japan
Building on ties to international artists, the Institute launches the Latin American Exchange Program and Sundance Film Festival in Tokyo to foster creative exchange and create opportunities for storytellers abroad.
Screenwriting, Music in Film, and Choreography
Identifying a gap in resources for artists of differing disciplines within the filmmaking field, the Institute establishes labs to support emerging composers, intensive script development, and choreography for film.
sex, lies, and videotape Makes Waves
Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape wins the Dramatic Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It goes on to become the most widely successful independent film released up to this time, and the Sundance Film Festival cements its status as the premiere forum for indie film.
Film Industry Takes Notice
A new wave of independent filmmakers shakes up the industry, and the Institute launches its first official program for Native filmmakers.
Small Films Get Big
Daughters of the Dust (1991), Paris Is Burning (1991), Slacker (1991), In the Soup (1992), El Mariachi (1993), Clerks (1994), Hoop Dreams (1994), Mi Vida Loca (1994), Reality Bites (1994)
Partnership Leads to First Spanish-Language Lab
The Sundance Institute co-sponsors the first Mexican Screenwriters Lab in collaboration with the University of Guadalajara. Lab fellow Guillermo del Toro brings his screenplay The Devil’s Backbone to continue development at the lab.
Solidifying a Commitment to Native Filmmakers
Affirming its long-held commitment to Native American filmmakers, the Institute creates an initiative to support Native and Indigenous artists and a Festival section to showcase their work.
Reaching Beyond the Mountain
While independent film is finding a footing within the larger moviemaking landscape, championing creative and underrepresented voices is the driving force for further expansion and support.
A First for Native Film
Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre and written by Sherman Alexie, is the first film written and directed by Native Americans. The lab-supported film goes on to win the 1998 Festival’s Dramatic Audience Award and Dramatic Filmmaker Trophy and becomes the first Native film to receive a commercial release.
Outreach to Latin America, Europe, and China
The Institute further expands its international reach with Latin American Producers Conferences held in Mexico, Brazil, and Cuba, as well as Screenwriters Labs in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Central Europe. The Sundance Film Festival in Beijing marks the first-ever festival of American independent film in China.
Preserving Indie Film History
In partnership with UCLA, the Institute forms the Sundance Collection at UCLA, an archive dedicated to the collection and preservation of independent cinema.
Boys Don't Cry
Writer-director Kimberly Peirce develops Boys Don’t Cry at the Directors Lab. The groundbreaking film, based on the true story of a transgender man starting over in a small Nebraska town, goes on to earn Hilary Swank the 2000 Academy Award for Best Actress.
Funding Gets Real, Film Goes Digital
Further cementing its support of diverse storytelling in craft and form, the Institute expands opportunities for documentary and theater makers and embraces the rising influence of digital video.
The Festival Ventures into the Digital Domain
As many in the industry debate whether digital is here to stay, the Sundance Film Festival sees the technological shift as an opportunity for artists and is one of the first festivals to offer digital projection.
New Opportunities for Theater Makers
The Institute’s Theater Program launches the Sundance Playwrights Retreat at the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming, as well as its first lab dedicated to the development of musical and ensemble theater at the White Oak Plantation in Florida.
Investing in Documentary
The Soros Documentary Fund becomes the Sundance Documentary Fund and is adopted as a core program of the Institute. The Documentary Film Program also expands to offer creative and strategic support in addition to providing grants for nonfiction filmmakers.
Eagles, Vampires, and Wilderpeople
New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi’s first professional filmmaking effort— Two Cars, One Night—is programmed in the Native Forum at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. He goes on to present five more films at the Festival, including Lab-supported projects Eagle vs. Shark and Boy, and supports new generations of Indigenous filmmakers through his continued involvement with the Native Program (now called the Indigenous Program).
Fresh Perspectives Push the Art and Form of Storytelling
International film and the convergence of storytelling and emerging technology take center stage, while artist opportunities expand to encompass creative producing.
Storytelling Transcends Boundaries
The Sundance Film Festival launches its World Cinema Competition, elevating the profile of international filmmakers at the Festival, along with the New Frontier section, which celebrates innovative work at the intersection of film, art, and technology.
Theater Goes Global
The Theatre Program forms global connections through the Stary Theatre of Krakow, Poland, to offer a theatre workshop and the first annual Theatre Lab in East Africa on the island of Manda, which is the start of a long-standing commitment to cross-cultural exchange for theatre makers.
Supporting the Independent Producer
Recognizing the crucial role independent producers play in finding, championing, and shaping original stories, the Creative Producing Initiative is launched to nurture emerging producers with project-specific support through labs, grants, and long-term advisor relationships.
Crafting Her Own Story
Dee Rees workshops her first film, Pariah, during the Directors and Screenwriters Labs, and she later premieres it at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, where it wins the Dramatic Excellence in Cinematography Award. Rees goes on to write and direct the critically acclaimed Mudbound and receives the Sundance Institute Vanguard Award, which celebrates innovation, originality, independent spirit, and visionary storytelling.
Intensive Lab for Native Filmmakers
The Institute offers its first Native Filmmakers Lab on the homelands of the Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico.
New Channels for Independent Voices
As storytelling technologies and platforms transform how art is created and experienced, artist support grows to ensure innovative stories continue to be developed and heard.
Harnessing Digital Platforms
In response to the new opportunities for reaching audiences created by emerging technologies, the Institute launches #ArtistServices, later renamed the Creative Distribution Initiative. The program allows Sundance Institute alumni to retain ownership of their work while reaching audiences through leading digital platforms like iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, and others.
Developing Resonant Stories through Emerging Technologies
The dynamic work presented at New Frontier during the Festival inspires the Institute to launch the New Frontier Story Lab, deepening its support for the storytelling pioneers working with new mediums and methodologies.
Experimentation Revolutionizes Storytelling
Recognizing the value of VR as a storytelling tool, Nonny de la Peña is invited to present her immersive piece Hunger in Los Angeles at the 2012 Festival. The invitation prompts de la Peña’s intern Palmer Luckey to create a mobile version of USC’s VR headset, which becomes an early manifestation of Oculus Rift. This marks the beginning of the multi-billion dollar gold rush among the technology, gaming, and film industries to bring viable virtual reality to the masses.
Festival Goes Abroad and Shorts Tour the U.S.
With a goal of connecting with new audiences and building community, Sundance Film Festival: London, Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong, and the Short Film Tour are launched.
New Paths to Production
Leading the call for diversity in media, the Institute launches three initiatives to open new paths to production: Women at Sundance, which supports women storytellers; Catalyst, which connects emerging artists with creative investors; and the Outreach and Inclusion Initiative, which reaches new communities of storytellers and audiences.
Sound Design, Scores, and Skywalker
The Film Music Program partners with Skywalker Sound to expand its Composers Lab to include sound design. The Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Sound enhances the role of music in film by bringing together filmmakers, emerging composers, and Skywalker’s in-house sound designers.
Enter Episodic Content
With the explosion of episodic content on cable and online platforms, the Feature Film Program creates the Episodic Story Lab, offering writers an opportunity to learn how to develop stories and characters that evolve over multiple episodes.
Maximizing Artist Reach and Impact
Responding to the changing needs of artists, new initiatives broaden opportunities for storytellers around the world, helping to amplify their voices.
Investing in Young Filmmakers
The Institute kicks off its new Ignite Fellows program, providing a curated Festival experience for emerging filmmakers ages 18–25. In its first year, the program brings fellows to the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City and Sundance Film Festival: Hong Kong.
Support Beyond the First Film
The Feature Film Program introduces the FilmTwo Initiative to support independent filmmakers as they develop and complete their second feature film—often the greatest challenge to a sustainable career as a filmmaker.
Recognizing the Art of Nonfiction
The Documentary Film Program completes its pilot year of the Art of Nonfiction Initiative to elevate the art and craft of cinematic nonfiction storytelling.
Expansion to MENA
In an effort to broaden opportunities for cross-cultural discovery, the 2016 Theatre Lab moves from the Sundance Mountain Resort to Morocco for a joint American and Middle Eastern/North African Theater Lab. In 2017, the Theater Program holds a residency program for Europe-based Syrian playwrights to workshop new works in Arabic, with support from an international cohort of mentors and professionals.
Showcasing Episodic Storytelling
While episodic content had already been part of the Festival’s programming for several years, in 2018 the Indie Episodic category is officially introduced to showcase new talent in indie TV and build a market for this budding industry.
Innovation Through Access and Inclusion
The 2019 Sundance Film Festival introduced the Press Inclusion Initiative, a program that offers stipend grants to defray travel costs for over 50 freelance critics and journalists while providing unprecedented access to the Festival through a minimum allotment of top-tier credentials for journalists from underrepresented communities, and Talent Forum, a multi-day event that connects artists and industry. Additionally, 2019 saw the public commencement of Sundance Co//ab, a community learning platform for creators around the globe.
As inequities in society were laid bare by extraordinary circumstances, the Institute chose to meet the moment and invest in an equitable and accessible future for artists and audiences.
Respond and Reimagine
In the wake of closures and restrictions due to COVID-19, the Sundance Institute created the Respond & Reimagine Plan, which redistributed funds to directly support the urgent needs of artists, as well as arts organizations from around the world who are leading the field in support of artists from historically marginalized communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The summer labs were also held online, bringing participants together virtually on Sundance Collab.
Meeting Audiences Where They Are
The ongoing pandemic led the Institute to offer the 2021 Sundance Film Festival digitally via a custom-designed online platform alongside screenings at local cinemas and arts organizations across the U.S. in the form of Satellite Screens. Huge strides in accessibility led to tripled attendance and industry praise for setting a high standard in user experience for screenings and in the all-new New Frontier experience, which allowed artists and Festivalgoers to mingle in a virtual space.