Photo courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Beasts of the Southern Wild is an obvious Sundance Film Festival success. In addition to critics praising it as one of the best Sundance films ever, the story of six-year-old Hushpuppy is up for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.
But what some might not know about the film, which screened at the 2012 festival, is it was shaped into what it is now at the Sundance Institute’s labs.
Recently, Salt Lake magazine was in on a round-table interview with Keri Putnam, director of the Sundance Institute. Along with the work they do with films like Beasts, Putnam discussed this year’s festival and Sundance’s future.
With the rise of digital media and many filmmakers taking digital routes to distribute their product, do you think it could one day create an environment without cinemas or even film festivals?
“No, absolutely not . . . Every one of our filmmakers . . . that are pursuing independent distribution roots that include digital distribution, innovative VOD and even direct-to-fan marketing through companies like Topspin and others—all of them are doing that with a complementary cinematic strategy. I know very few that aren’t trying to balance it.”
The festival caters to locals through locals-only tickets, but what is the Sundance Institute doing for Utah’s filmmakers?
“Our goal is to make sure everybody in this state and all states and around the world knows our submissions are open. So anybody can submit. There’s no inside club. There’s no pipeline you have to be a part of. It’s open submission, and they all get looked at. We’ve had a lot of great stuff chosen from that local group, so Utahns are as welcome as anyone else. But we do have students and a lot of young people in the film community of Utah working in our labs and interning in our labs.”
Film school is so expensive through a four-year university. Has Sundance ever thought about opening a film school?
“We have not thought about starting a film school for a couple of reasons. One—I think there are a lot of great film schools out there, and I don’t think there’s a crying need for another film school. Two—It’s true, whether in the documentary space or the narratie space, we are really focusing on the professional. It’s a different education than you’d get at a film school . . . We don’t say here’s how to shoot a scene or here’s how to write a script . . . It’s a very specific professional mentorship program, and that’s for the screenwriter’s lab, director’s lab and editor’s lab.”
Beasts of the Southern Wild has been used to show how successful the labs are, but is that enough to gage the Institute’s success?
“We love when there’s a breakout hit. The fact that Beasts of the Southern Wild has four Oscar nominations and came through our labs—there couldn’t be anything we’re more proud of . . . But for many of those small films, some of the filmmakers, the documentarians in particular, are not making movies to have a breakout hit. They are making movies to have an impact—for them being in front of a lot of eyeballs, maybe digitally or through an educational distribution strategy . . . I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all success for our community.”
What’s the Institute doing to really help documentarians?
“Offsite of the festival, we do something called Good Pitch with our partners in the UK. We pull together a selection of films that are looking for funding, along with a variety of organizations and foundations that might start to fund them. We provide the moment for them to come together and it really helps.”
There’s a lot of A-listers in this year’s festival. Do you see Sundance going more Hollywood?
“Certainly the big studios, and the indies to some extent, they’ve abandoned a lot of the production and development of their character driven films . . . Now, we’re finding a lot of those films are being made through equity financing and different financing sources, so they are true indies. They are coming here looking for the same opportunities as the smaller ones. So, I don’t think that’s going Hollywood. I think that’s a reflection of maybe where Hollywood is going.”
Along with showing films, Sundance is known for setting the bar on what’s hip for the coming year. How will you continue that for the next five or ten years?
“I think if you set out to be the cultural forecast, you’ll inevitably fail. You have to keep your eye on what you do well and keep doing it and hope the kind of selections you make have that result.”