The Sundance Institute

By Patterson, Richard | American Cinematographer, September 1982 | Go to article overview

The Sundance Institute


Patterson, Richard, American Cinematographer


Nestled in the Wasatch mountains in Utah is a small ski resort owned by Robert Bedford which during the summer houses the Sundance Institute. For the month of June eight or ten fifmmakers come there to work on the development of independent features with the help of some 50 writers, directors, actors, producers, cameramen, production designers, distributors, executives and agents in an atmosphere which is like a combination of summer camp, film school and film festival. The Sundance Institute grew out of Bedford's desire to foster independent filmmaking. More specifically it was conceived as a means of supporting regional films which are narrative and essentially humanistic. It is not geared towards avant garde or experimental films nor is it concerned with documentaries. It focuses on films which tell a story with actors but which do not offer the kind of immediate commercial exploitability that is generally required to attract mainstream financing.

According to its brochure the institute has three goals: "First, to nurture new talent by helping filmmakers to work on essential aspects of their craft (story-telling skills, the ability to work with actors, and production management and planning). second, to explore new and responsible ways of producing, financing, and distributing feature films. Third, to support the production of well crafted, low-budget feature films for a variety of markets."

In many ways Sundance seems very reminiscent of the American Film Institute Center for Advanced Film Studies in its early years, and in fact one of the principal figures at Sundance is Frank Daniel, the former head of the Czech Film School who was brought to the U.S. to be the dean of the AFI center. Like the AFI, Sundance is based on the idea that aspiring filmmakers can benefit from seminars and workshops with established Hollywood professionals, but it differs from the AFI in several ways. Perhaps the most significant is that it chooses projects rather than individuals. In this respect it is modeled after the television workshop at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center where teleplays are developed, rehearsed and taped in a very rough form with the idea that they can then secure financing for production.

Sundance was conceived with the idea of concentrating on feature films rather than films for television-so much so that there was even resistance among some of its board members to the idea of using videotape for the workshops. This prejudice was dispelled by the realization that working in film was impractical, given the goals and the schedule of the institute and by a generous offer from Sony to loan Sundance the necessary video camera and editing equipment. None of the filmmakers attempts to make a sample reel or finished sequence from his film during the month at Sundance. All of the production work that is done is designed as a workshop experience in which the learning process is considered more important than the final product. One of the rules at Sundance, in fact, is that none of the videotapes leave the institute. This takes pressure off the filmmaker so that he can derive full benefit of what Sundance has to offer and, even more importantly, it frees the actors who contribute their time and services to let loose and experiment in the scenes being taped without having to worry about who is going to see the tape.

Each filmmaker who brings a project to Sundance works with the program committee in advance to devise a program which is suited to the needs of his or her particular project. All of the filmmakers are put together with script consultants for a series of discussions about their scripts during the first part of the year. While they are at Sundance the filmmakers continue to work on their scripts and spend one week of their time there rehearsing, taping and editing two selected scenes from the script. The rest of the time is spent in sessions with "resource people" discussing production design, production management, distribution, financing, etc. …

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