A Beginner’s Guide To Sundance

Written by Kara MacLean January 14, 2012

As the 2012 Sundance Film Festival approaches, the documents and emails I’ve been asked to read prior to training in Park City are piling up, so for others who are in the same position or just interested in the festival, I offer the following:

(Disclaimer: As I’ve been in school for the past four years, and this is the first time I have attended/worked at this festival, so this information is purely based on the training materials & personal research research)

To skip to a specific section, just click on the section headings:
Brief History of the Sundance Film Festival
Films at Sundance 2012
[Suggested] 2012 Events/Panels
[Suggested] 2012 Films
(though there are many not mentioned here)
Additional Info/Links



The annual Sundance Film Festival is held in Park City, Utah in mid-January, and is comprised of thirteen programmes, including films in and out of competition as well as programmes highlighting music, panels, media installations and classic independent films. The festival’s beginnings, pre-Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute (named after the actor’s character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) involvement, began in 1978 as the U.S. Film Festival in Salt Lake City. Redford acted as the festival’s first board chairman, and though the festival was relatively successful, the lack of profitability was a problem. In 1980, a decision was made to move the festival to Park City, reportedly to reap the benefits of proximity to the ski resorts.

The film festival had various names from 1980 to 1985, and was finally branded the Sundance Film Festival in 1985 when Redford’s Sundance Institute took over the festival. The Sundance Institute organization was and remains comprised of labs and fellowships created to provide creative and financial support to aspiring directors, producers, screenwriters and others involved in filmmaking. The pairing of the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival proved to be a powerful and influential union, as many filmmakers who have received financial or workshop assistance from the Sundance Institute have gone on to screen at the Sundance Film Festival, including a rental store employee-turned-director’s first feature film, Reservoir Dogs (1992). This director is of course Quentin Tarantino, who has become one of the most commercially successful auteurs in the world.

Other notable directors who screened their films and got their big break at Sundance include Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), Stephen Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape), Darren Aronofsky (Pi), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi).  Other films screened at Sundance that went on to become commercial or critical hits were Little Miss Sunshine, The Blair Witch Project and Garden State.

If you want to learn more about the festival – besides online research – you can also check out these books:
Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance and the Rise of Independent Film
– Peter Biskind, 2004 (This tends to focus on the gossip-side of things, but it is a fun read and worth the time if you’re interested in the details of how Sundance came to be, and which films were shopped & sold at Sundance in the prime years of Miramax)
Ultimate Film Festival Survival Guide – Chris Gore, 2009 (pick up the 4th edition & you’ll be able to access online guides for individual festivals as well – the earlier editions will be less current). This has some great information on all of the major festivals.

I also enjoyed:
How Not To Make A Short Film
– Roberta Maria Munroe, 2009 (written by a Toronto native about her take on short filmmaking, as she worked as a short film programmer for Sundance for years)

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The list of films screening this year at Sundance is readily available online, so I am only listing the film titles here with links to their pages – to get the synopsis and find the director/cast involved, click on the movie title.

There are eleven film programmes at Sundance, which make up the festival screenings, and two other non-screening programmes. The IN COMPETITION films are eligible for jury consideration for a number of awards, and there are also many OUT OF COMPETITION films, including PREMIERES (highly anticipated dramatic & documentary features).


– World premieres of 16 American films –
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The Comedy
The End of Love
Frilly Brown
The First Time
For Ellen
Hello I Must Be Going
Keep The Lights On
Middle of Nowhere
Nobody Walks
Safety Not Guaranteed
Save the Date
Simon Killer
The Surrogate

– World premieres of 16 American documentaries –
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
The Atomic States Of America
Chasing Ice
Escape Fire: The Fight To Rescue American Healthcare
Finding North
The House I Live In
How To Survive A Plague
The Invisible War
Love Free Or Die
Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present
Me @The Zoo_
The Other Dream Team
The Queen of Versailles
Slavery By Another Name
We’re Not Broke

– 14 films from emerging directors from around the world –
About The Pink Sky
Father’s Chair
Four Suns
The Last Elvis
Madrid, 1987
My Brother The Devil
Teddy Bear
Valley of Saints
Violeta Went to Heaven
Wish You Were Here
Young & Wild

– 12 documentaries from directors from around the world –
½ Revolution
5 Broken Cameras
The Ambassador
Big Boys Gone Bananas!
China Heavyweight
Gypsy Davy
The Imposter
Indie Game: The Movie
The Law In These Parts
Putin’s Kiss
Searching For Sugar Man

– Best of short films from around the world –
too many to list here, but check them out at the short films list


– Showcase of world premieres & highly anticipated dramatic films for the upcoming year –
2 Days In New York
California Solo
Celeste and Jesse Forever
For a Good Time, Call …
Lay the Favorite
Liberal Arts
Price Check
Red Hook Summer
Red Lights
Robot and Frank
Shadow Dancer
The Words

– Showcase of documentary premieres –
About Face
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
The D Word: Understanding Dyslexia
A Fierce Green Fire
Something From Nothing: The Art of Rap
Under African Skies
West of Memphis

– “Tribute to the cinema we love” (films that have played and done well at other festivals – usually U.S. or North American premieres) –
Corpo Celeste
Declaration of War
Monsieur Lazhar
The Orator
Oslo, August 31st
The Raid
This Must Be The Place
Where Do We Go Now?
Wuthering Heights
Your Sister’s Sister

– World premieres of bold films by promising filmmakers –
28 Hotel Rooms
I Am Not A Hipster
Mosquita y Mari
My Best Day
Pursuit of Loneliness
Sleepwalk With Me
That’s What She Said

– World premieres of horror flicks & quirky comedies –
Black Rock
John Dies At The End
The Pact
Shut Up and Play The Hits
Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie

– Convergence of film, art & new media technology – media installations, multimedia performances, screenings, etc. –
An Oversimplification of Her Beauty
The Perception of Moving Targets
Room 237


– 2 classic films from the Sundance Institute Collection –
Daughters of the Dust
Reality Bites

– Music, art, panels –
check it out here

A synopsis of each of these films/events is available in the Highlights & Films section here

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hitRECord At The Movies
Joseph Gordon Leavitt has done some amazing things with his company hitRECord over the years, and has frequently screened his short film collaborative efforts at film festivals such as NXNE and TIFF. Though most of the hitRECord work is displayed on the company’s interactive website, the screening will definitely be something special.
check the event out here

Hunger In Los Angeles (New Frontiers)
A new kind of journalism – an immersive, virtual-reality experience that recreates “an eye-witness account of a crisis on line at the First Unitarian Church food bank” – providing audience members the ability to suit up and dive into the scene, to walk around the scene and interact with others.
check the event out here

Distribution X
This panel will discuss whether someone can successfully distribute their film themselves, in the age of new media and technology that can provide innovative means of getting a film out there.
check the event out here

If you’re interested in learning more about the events/panels – check out the Panels, New Frontiers, Cinema Café & Music sections here.

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“Safety Not Guaranteed” (U.S. Dramatic In Competition)
dir: Colin Trevorrow

I love Aubrey Plaza. I loved Colin Trevorrow’s short film Home Base. I hope this collaboration is everything it should be. Plus, with this image (posted above) as the central story line, how could this not be intriguing? The Duplass brothers are also executive producers, and both Mark Duplass & Lynn Shelton appear in the film.

“LUV” (U.S. Dramatic In Competition)
dir: Sheldon Candis


The storyline is interesting – an eleven-year-old boy reconnects/bonds with his uncle who returns from an eight-year prison sentence and finds himself exposed to a new world of crime in Baltimore. I appreciate that the story was based on director Sheldon Candis’ childhood relationship with his uncle, and though it sounds a little like The Pursuit of Happyness, I think this film will find its own voice amongst similar coming-of-age dramas.

“The Surrogate” (U.S. Dramatic In Competition)
dir: Ben Lewin

The Surrogate

John Hawkes returns to Sundance for the third consecutive year, this time playing poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who, living in an iron lung at the age of thirty six, decides he no longer wants to be a virgin, and enlists the help of his therapist and his priest to hire a sex surrogate. Hawkes has played creepy so well in both Winter’s Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene – it will be great to see him in a main title role.

“Black Rock” (Park City at Midnight)
dir: Katie Aselton

Black Rock

The fact that Kate Bosworth is in this film makes me somewhat apprehensive, but the other people involved in the film up the ante. Director Katie Aselton and writer Mark Duplass have collaborated here on a “female-thriller” in which childhood friends reunite for a weekend on a remote island, and find their getaway turns into a struggle for survival. I’ve seen most of Mark Duplass’ mumblecore movement films and enjoyed them, so I’m interested to see his take on a dramatic thriller.

“Robot and Frank” (Premieres)
dir: Jake Schreier

Robot and Frank

The premise: set sometime in the future, an elderly man (Frank Langella) receives a caretaker robot from his children, and eventually befriends the robot and involves his new friend in his old passion for jewel thievery. This alone makes me want to see this movie – a dramady, half Moon half The Asphalt Jungle – should be an interesting film.

“Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” (Documentary Premieres)
dir: Stacy Peralta

Bones Brigade

I really enjoy Stacy Peralta’s documentaries, so maybe I am optimistically biased here, but I definitely want to see this. Dogtown and Z-Boys is one of my favourite documentaries – despite having no knowledge or passion for skateboarding or surfing, the subject matter was captivating.

“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (U.S. Documentaries In Competition)
dir: Alison Klayman

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

This documentary examines activist/artist Ai Weiwei and the impact of his work/passion. As a voice against China’s oppression, this documentary promises to be an interesting look into the power of activism in a country that denies its citizens many basic rights. Even the poster for this film is itself intriguing.

“The Imposter” (World Cinema Documentary In Competition)
dir: Bart Layton

The Imposter

The subject matter of this film caught my attention – a real Changeling, this documentary tells the story of a thirteen year old boy who goes missing in Texas in 1994, and is found three and half years later in Spain, telling his family of the kidnapping and torture he endured. Only when an investigator looks into the case does the family realize the person claiming to be their lost son may be an imposter. Uncommon for a documentary, this film is pitched as a “gripping thriller”.

Films I’ve seen and would recommend:

“Your Sister’s Sister” (Spotlight)

Your Sister's Sister

“The Raid” (Spotlight)

The Raid

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Where can I find more information prior to and during the festival?

If you’re interested in finding out up-to-date information during the festival – Indiewire has frequent and in-depth articles on filmmakers, deals, reviews, etc. They also have ongoing interviews with the directors – check it out here

Sundance also has video interviews with some of the directors showcasing their films at this year’s Festival; this is the second year for this video content initiative, which provides some great insight – check the videos out here

Also I’ll be using my twitter account as much as I can to share my experience working at the festival – I’ll be arriving on January 17th and staying until January 30th — you can follow me at @karamaclean

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I hope this has been helpful and/or interesting – independent film festivals and institutes like Sundance are not only important to the continued support of independent filmmakers, but are a ton of fun and definitely worth attending!

Happy film fest-ing,

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About Kara MacLean

Lover of film festivals, independent cinema & Arrested Development.

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