January 28, 2015


Alum Discusses his history at Sundance

I just met a llama (pictured).

Sundance is a weird place. It’s a confluence of so many things at one time, it’s often difficult to gain your bearings. And in some ways, it’s as though the festival prefers it that way; your senses off-kilter and unaccustomed, struggling to make sense of the winter wonderland in which you find yourself. There are the massive mansions overlooking the city, designed like one might imagine a mountain-chalet-Vegas-themed casino to look, complete with massive screening rooms, picture windows, and color schemes evincing a particular attachment to shades of brown. There are the theaters, strewn throughout the valley and not easily connected between (or certainly, not with swiftness), holding such varied numbers of people between them that it does not seem inappropriate to read, in the subtext, some prejudice against a particular film built-in to the assignation of a smaller screening venue. Then there are the restaurants, clearly designed almost entirely for the yearly-visiting visiting Angelenos, every guest grumbling at the cost, quietly suspecting that there might, in fact, be a “regular” menu that costs significantly less, distributed literally every day that isn’t during the festival.
And then, there are the movies. I forgot about the movies.

My first year attending Sundance, I was freshly 23 years old, having just started USC’s MFA program. I convinced my beleaguered parents to finance my participation in the USC-sponsored trip, allowing me to attend the film festival to end all film festivals. This was my ticket. I was a narrative screenwriter, dammit, and these narratives were selling to Harvey Weinstein and Fox Searchlight and all those cool indie distributors that released all the cool indie movies I loved and wanted to write.

So I packed my bags, pulled out the winter coat I had been ignoring in the back of my closet, and bought my ticket. And I’ll be damned if my way there didn’t live up to all my over-inflated expectations. I flew Delta! They gave out free peanuts and soda! Jane Lynch was sitting in first class! Yes, I was en route to my destiny, where my newfound matriculation as a USC graduate student would open doors—nay, blow the doors wide open.

Now, never mind the fact that I had zero tickets, no party invites, and absolutely no business being in Park City. Who cares about that? I saw Oprah on Main Street. OPRAH. Yeah. And then I successfully waitlisted a few movies! I saw that Lil’ Wayne documentary about how he drinks a lot of cough syrup. I saw some spring break-themed movie that I think starred Amy Poehler? I saw some shorts! Oh God, did I see shorts!

That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve graduated. I’ve worked with directors, producers, and other filmmakers. I’ve produced a movie, THE YOUNG KIESLOWSKI (which, full disclosure, did not play the Sundance film festival), and went out on my own to make more of the kind of films I love, that I’ve always loved, and that I fall further in love with at every Sundance.

And now, traveling here in 2015, this place looks much different than it did the first time I stepped onto Main Street. Most everything is the same, but my perspective has changed.
After my first trip failed to produce a three-picture deal with Warner Brothers, I refined my strategy. I booked my own condo (way too far out) and bought some tickets (but didn’t get any movies I loved). I went to a few parties (I conned my way in, I guess). Here’s a fun tip: the worst thing that can possibly happen if you try to crash a party is that you won’t get in. Which is what would have happened if you didn’t try in the first place. So don’t lose too much sleep over party-crashing anxiety. Sometimes it actually works.

In the years that followed, I got us even closer to Main street. I got more party invites. I traded them with my friends. I had business cards printed, despite the fact that I barely had any “business” to speak of. I met my future manager, my future lawyer, and countless creative collaborators.

And then I kept coming back.

Six years on, Sundance looks a lot different than it did my first time there. I still haven’t premiered a movie here. I still haven’t seen a movie in the Egyptian theater (It just worked out that way… I promise I have nothing against it). And I still manage to always lose my voice around the third or fourth day of the festival (if you were hearing me read this rather than reading it yourself right now, you’d tell me to stop talking). The friends and colleagues I’ve met over the years at the festival are now making their own movies, getting into Sundance, and selling them to distributors. I’m seeing the people I care about have success at the place that made me feel it was even possible. And it feels pretty great.

I have met some filmmakers who say they’ll only go to Sundance once they have a movie here. I understand the sentiment, but my yearly trips have brought me to believe that those people actually have it backwards. The way I see it, coming to Sundance and experiencing it first hand, is the way you’re going to get your future movie here in the first place