Letting Sparks Fly: Sundance’s Three-Year-Old Ignite Program Gives Young Moviemakers Space to Grow

As Sundance settles comfortably into its fourth decade, the festival hopes to draw—and shape—new filmmakers and audiences, particularly as methods of creating and consuming film change.

Sundance Ignite, now in its third year, targets 18-24-year-olds to meet that goal.

This year’s Ignite program ran from January 25–29, the second half of the festival, and offered fellowships and ticket packages (at $250 for 15 films) exclusive to those ages 18-24. It also included access to panels and events that introduce young creatives to the industry, moviemakers and artist programs at Sundance, as well as provide networking opportunities. This year, 400 people participated, including 15 Ignite Fellows.

“It’s an exciting group to work with. Their stories and ideas are fresh and their energy is infectious,” says Meredith Lavitt, Ignite’s program director. Panels included topics such as breaking into the industry, funding, pitching, writing treatments and strategically navigating the festival circuit. “We want to provide Ignite filmmakers with realistic tools,” says Lavitt.

The demand on the ticket package side of the program is high—Lavitt says it sold out last year in 20 minutes. Some students, like Carly Porter, a senior at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, participated through a sponsorship program at their colleges.

For the 15 Fellows, Ignite kicked off a yearlong mentorship for artistic and professional development. Fellows met their mentors and other industry professionals at the festival. At one event, Thea Gajic, an Ignite Fellow and actress and filmmaker in London, practiced pitching with her mentor, Lacey Schwartz (known for 2015 documentary Little White Lie), for a feature film that Gajic is beginning. “Ignite has already opened a lot of doors for me,” Gajic says.

Ignite selected its Fellows from 379 applicants from around the world who submitted an original short film (under eight minutes) that explored the theme “What’s Next?” Adobe’s Project1324, an initiative to showcase emerging artists having a positive impact, hosted the online, no-fee application.

Mentorships often involve remote communication, depending on location. Fellow Sachin Dharwadker planned monthly calls with his mentor, producer Jason Berman (The Birth of a Nation), to support developing a short film. “Now that I’m out of film school and have fewer resources, I want to create a logistically approachable film and learn how to focus on a compact set of goals for my story,” Dharwadker says.

2017 Sundance Ignite Fellow Sachin Dharwadker. Photograph by Jonathan Hickerson / Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For his application, Dharwadker submitted an experimental film that he developed in Paris, studying abroad while at film school at New York University. “I’ve grown up with Sundance. It’s always been a big milestone for me,” he says. “It’s an organization that finds new talent and this is an extension of that.”

Friends Leah Galant and Emily Ann Hoffman, both moviemakers in Pleasantville, New York, created films specifically for the application and both were accepted. “If you’re struggling with how to shape your message, or you need a boost to get your stories out into the world, you should apply,” says Galant.

“Sundance is willing to amplify our voices, and now we, as filmmakers, have audiences,” Hoffman says. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Spring 2017 issue. Top photograph by Calvin Knight / Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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