Sundance: 2011 Festival of the Year

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This was certainly a banner year for the premier film festival in America, the Sundance Film Festival, as over 40 films from the festival were sold. Sundance 2011 also premiered year-end favorites Take Shelter, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Bellflower, Margin Call, Another Earth, The Interrupters, Project Nim and Buck. And as always, there were even more gems among the less heralded films. Perhaps even more importantly, the Sundance Institute began expanding its influential Labs program beyond the confines of Park City, conducting ShortsLabs in four other cities around the country.

Right at the center of it all was head of programming Trevor Groth. He joined us to talk a bit about the brand new Documentary Premieres section (which brought docs by Steve James, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Liz Garbus, Eugene Jarecki, and others to the fest this year), his own rise within the organization, taking ShortsLab on the road, and the most common mistake filmmakers make.

Paste: Let’s talk about the new Documentary Premieres section. It’s such a no brainer to have Alex Gibney and Morgan Spurlock and Steve James and everybody who was there to be in Park City. I mean, why would you not do that?
Groth: I know, and we always want them to be involved in the festival, but by having this new section we’ll not only allow them not to showcase their new films, but also to allow new documentarians to fill in those slots in competition that they would normally have taken up. So it’s really a win-win for us. And it’s definitely something we’re going to be celebrating as we move forward as well.

Paste: Let’s talk about how you came to Sundance.
Groth: I grew up in Salt Lake City and I started going to the festival when I was in high school, and I fell in love with the world that it created and the art that it was supporting, and it changed my life. I ended up volunteering for the festival and then I worked in the labs that they do, where they develop screenwriters and directors. That’s where I met the programmers for the festival for the first time and we hit it off. We had a lot of late-night conversations about film and what films we loved. Then in ’93 they were hiring someone to help program the short films and be a program coordinator and I got that job and sort of rose my way up through the ranks.

Paste: What did that path look like?
Groth: I was a programmer, then a senior programmer, and then I was named Director of Programming two-and-a-half years ago. And it’s been amazing. You know, I went to film school and I thought I was going to be making films when I graduated. I did work on some productions and I made some student films, but for me the magic always lay in the watching of the films. That’s where my passion is. So to have a job that allows me to watch, you know, hundreds, if not close to a thousand movies a year is a dream come true. I’m very lucky to be in the position I’m in.

Paste: And let’s talk a little about some of the Shorts Labs. There are plenty film fans who don’t even realize that Sundance is a lot more than the festival, and in fact the festival is a small part of what the Sundance Institute does.
Groth: Yeah, and in fact the Sundance Institute was created by Robert Redford in 1981, first of all, for the labs. The screenwriter and the director labs are where they develop artists working in film outside of the mainstream and that was the initial intent of what the institute was. After they did that for a few years Redford realized there wasn’t a great platform to connect those artists with their audience for the films they were making, so he took over the film festival that was taking place there in Utah. It was then called the US Film and Video Festival. Redford took it over and it became Sundance and that was a way of expanding the audience with the kind of filmmakers that the Sundance Institute supported. So that’s really the mission of the festival; it’s nurturing those artists working in film. The festival has become sort of a global phenomenon and has a lot of impact in that world, but what the core of what Sundance is all about is developing and nurturing those writers and directors. What makes those labs so amazing is that they are so tightly curated. There is an open submission policy; any one can apply to get into the labs, and they get thousands of submissions each year just as the festival does but they select even fewer projects than we have slots for at the festival. So percentage-wise it’s even more difficult to get into the feature labs.

Paste: So these offsite labs are kind of a way into that exclusive world?
Groth: Yes. That’s partly why we’re so excited for what these Shorts Labs offer and represent because they’re open to anyone who wants to sign up. Especially for short-film makers. We get about 6,000 short films submitted to the festival last year and that number grows every year, fairly substantially. So that shows us there is a vital film community out there, especially working in the short form. And we want to be able to have a deeper connection with those people to be able to hopefully bring them insight and inspiration as they’re moving forward and are about to create their films. And it’s working. We’ve done four Shorts Labs. We did one in LA last year, and we did one in Chicago and in New York this year. We just did another one in L.A. that was focused on comedy shorts.

Paste: Not something people always associate with Sundance.
Groth: That was something we were very excited about because often times with Sundance, people associate us with sort of dark-themed films, and we sometimes don’t get the recognition for showcasing some of the comedic voices that we have over the years. And actually the list is pretty impressive. Especially the people who have come with short films that have gone on to have big careers like Spike Jonze, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, David Wayne. Louis C.K. had a short film back in the ’90s, Cameron Jenkins. The list goes on and on. And we love that. To put on a good film festival you want a balance. You just don’t want just too much of one thing, so for us comedies have always played a huge role at the festival. To be able to do a lab focused on comedy shorts was a great concept for us. We got a lot of engaged and excited filmmakers that I look forward now to seeing what they produce.

Paste: That’s awesome. I always say if you can get into Sundance with a comedy you’ve really got a great shot at building up audience enthusiasm because people are seeing multiple films a day, and a lot of them are darker, and you’re really in the mood for a really fun, hilarious comedy. A couple of my favorite experiences of the past couple years were happythankyoumoreplease and, of course, (500) Days of Summer. It was just like this whole cathartic release for 300 people or 1,300 people or however many people that theater holds.
Groth: Exactly, and I don’t think that people realize that in my opinion it’s harder to make a good comedy than a good dramatic film. I think so much in the drama films comes from people’s personal stories, and they can find the emotion in that. They can tap into it easier than they can create laughter. It’s really one of the hardest things to do. So for us to have a lot of focus on that was really challenging, to put together the curriculum for it, we were excited about doing it to help people try and find their voice or find the laughter that they can spark within it.

Paste: There are four themes that you hit: story, production, distribution, and then a programmer’s panel. So why don’t we go through them one by one and you can sort of tell us, if you don’t mind, a peek behind the veil and sharing some of the wisdom that came out of those for things.
Groth: Sure, I’d be happy to.

Paste: In the story section you have some great storytellers that had produced some wonderful films like Winter’s Bone and Half-Nelson and Sugar. Tell us what came out of that section.
Groth: Yeah, for the story section in our NY lab we had Debra Granik who had two features that played the festival—Winter’s Bone and Down to the Bone, but before that had a short film that won our top jury prize called Snake Feed. And we also had Ryan Flack and Anna Boden, who again had a couple features at the festival, Half-Nelson and Sugar, but also had a short film prior to that that won our top prize in short filmmaking called Gowanus, Brooklyn. It was so interesting to hear the three of them talk about their films because they have an interesting context from when they made them and where they were in their careers and what they were later able to accomplish. They each, I think, imparted a lot of wisdom to the attendees about finding these sort of brilliant but small moments of grace in the every day. And I think if you look at Snake Feed and Gowanus, Brooklyn, both of those short films are rough and raw around the edges, but at their center provide almost profound insight into the human condition in terms of their representation of characters and the world they inhabit. They both accomplish it without a lot of dialogue. I think that was really great advice for short filmmakers. You don’t have to have a lot of exposition in a short film because it can really bog it down more so than in a feature. Instead, get at the story through capturing the details of a surrounding by having the character do an action that says so much more than what pages of dialogue could get at. And I think was great for people to hear them talk about it and see their films and how they accomplished that. And even just seeing the visual style of these films got them thinking that short films don’t have to follow any rules. It doesn’t have to look like a feature film; it doesn’t look like something you see on television. It can be its own art form. I think that that combination was illuminating for the attendees for what kind of films they might look for and have the passion to tell.

Paste: You know, talking about the lack of exposition in the shorts, you’re absolutely right. I think some of the best shorts that I’ve seen not only don’t have to have exposition, but often the very best ones don’t. Contrary to conventional wisdom they don’t have a beginning, middle and end, they just have a middle. And they really give you the sense that there are many things that happened before this little film and there are many things that happen after. And it creates this world in your mind that’s not bounded by the opening and closing of the film.
Groth: You’re exactly right, and I think that is one kind of short film you describe and a lot of what we show at Sundance fits into that mold. There are those shorts that do follow a structure. There are ones that we put in front of our features that have a set-up and a punchline, and those are more of the comedic ones. Or they can just be something shocking or they can be more to provoke. And those are great as well, and within the festival we do a range of those different styles, but the ones that have the most lasting impact are the kind you just described.

Paste: We could talk about stories for the next three hours, but we should probably move onto production. One of the cool guests about the NY lab, and I’m sure one of the most popular people who was get button holed afterwards, was one of the founders of Kickstarter who joined you.
Groth: When we put together these shorts labs, we wanted to focus more on the storytelling and that’s why we had two sections on story because it all starts there. We also wanted to bring into the conversation the opportunity that short filmmakers may not know about or may not know everything about. So that’s why we enlisted Yancy Strickler from Kickstarter—he actually spoke at the first three Shorts Labs we did because in the US there’s not many organizations that will fund short films. So if someone wants to make a short they have to do it themselves or ask a friend for money or use something like Kickstarter which as you know is crowd-sourced funding for projects. It’s been incredibly successful—for a relatively young company they’ve been able to have a hugely successful track record, and a lot of films are actually raising money to get made and for distribution funds or marketing funds through Kickstarter. Especially for short films, which don’t have a lot of opportunities, we thought it’d be valuable information for our attendees. It’s been one of the highlights of the labs each time Yancy spoke. Because he’s such a smart and eloquent speaker, he really comes at it from a pure perspective. He’s not trying to sell them something, but is just giving them information and answers freely all of their questions and give them information that might help them raise money for their ideas.

Paste: And then moving onto the distribution side, another subject near and dear to filmmaker’s hearts.

Groth: Yeah, distribution in the short film world is incredibly challenging. The best, I think, is a film festival because that is the opportunity to see the short in a theater and with an audience. And that is ultimately the life of a theatrical run of a short film. But with technology rapidly changing every day there are more and more opportunities for short film distribution online, and that’s great. You can reach a huge audience though that. And we had Top Spin, which is the company that basically provides tools for filmmakers, both long and short form, to self-distribute their films, and that’s great because moving forward part of the way people are going to get films made is having a built in audience for them. If people see that you have an online following it’s going to be easier and easier to raise money to get your films made. There are some traditional models; there are some cable channels who are still buying short films. I keep hearing mobile phone companies are going to get into the short film acquisitions business, but I tend to think that those tend to be a more specific kind of short films, not necessarily the type of shorts we show at Sundance, but more broad band, YouTube-friendly shorts. We embrace all of that. Any way a short filmmaker can find an audience for their work, I think it’s good to explore that. For me nothing beats seeing something in the theater with a group, and in fact at Sundance we used to have a rule that we wouldn’t show something that had been exhibited online, but we got rid of that rule because A) it didn’t make sense if there was a good film out there and for us to not show it at the festival because someone was just trying to build an audience and B) because the experience of seeing a film in a theater with an audience versus seeing it online is night and day. It can put a film in a completely different light, and it’s a great experience for a filmmaker to have. So we got rid of that rule. Any way a short filmmaker can connect to an audience is great.

Paste: And then onto the final section, the programmer’s forum or circle that you had, what came out of that?

Groth: You know, it’s interesting. We put that together and I really wanted it to be more than just the pat answers that festival programmers give when we’re out there in public settings at festivals and panels. You know, you get asked the same questions over and over and then the information you give back, even if it is valid, it is kind of a pat answer. We were trying to break out of that notion, so we did this kind of forum where our moderator drew a question from the filmmakers out of a hat and posed it to the individual programmers from all the different festivals. It worked to a certain extent. One of the questions was asked if programmers watched the films all the way through. And Sharon from TriBeCa frankly said no she doesn’t. She watches enough to make sure she’s confident in her decision, but then she just doesn’t have enough time in her day to watch everything all the way through. And that was great, I think that kind of honesty was refreshing, and the attendees were appreciative of that. But it’s still hard because the programming process it’s not just cut and dry. There are so many issues and elements that come into it. It’s everything from individual programmer’s subjective take to understanding audiences and what they might respond to. And also looking at the entire program and making sure you have a nice representation of different voices and different styles. So the fine art of festival programming is delicate and challenging to try and capture in a little soundbite. We were trying to lift the veil a little bit to people to at least know that program festivals, especially short films, are doing it because they love it and because they love short films. It’s not about politics or who you know, it’s about the work and that’s what we were trying to express there.

Paste: What would you say of the films that otherwise are films you would like to put into one of your programs, what you would say is one of the most common flaws that makes those films fall short? People are thinking they should submit their great film, but they want to make sure that it doesn’t have this flaw that keeps coming up.
Groth: I have an answer for that.

Paste: I hope it’s not one of those questions that you get asked a million times.
Groth: No, I don’t get asked it enough, actually. Because I have answer for that, and I always get asked questions I don’t have an answer to. The number one flaw I see over and over with all of the films I see over, both shorts and features is that they can be too long. People are afraid to edit them down into the films that they really should to have the biggest impact. Editing is the most challenging part and often gets rushed the most. That is the most detrimental thing that anyone can do is rushing their edit. People get attached to material and any individual scene or moment they may love, but it may not be what’s best for the film. And to be able to make that hard choice and to lose those scenes that don’t need to be in there is tough, but it’s the biggest flaw that I see across the board in films that get submitted to us.

Paste: I can see that. It makes sense. So how can people, readers/listeners, find out more about the Shorts Labs and what’s in store for the Shorts Labs?
Groth: Information on everything we do can be found on our website at www.sundance.org. As for the future for Shorts Labs, our plan was to wrap the three we did this year, look back over them and find out what worked, what we can do better, and figure out ways to maximize the impact of them as we move forward. The one thing we’re going to initially explore as we move forward is doing versions or parts of them online so we can expand past the couple hundred people who make it into the theater to see it. Going forward we want both of those elements to happen. All of the shorts programmers and myself have been personally engaged with all of these filmmakers that are going to be submitting their films to us. And that’s been my favorite part, is having that personal connection to all of these filmmakers. We’re going to continue that but also expand the reach of it by doing it online. We’ll know more soon; people should stay tuned and check our website.

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