Where I am now and where I was before the festival is light years

Like the legend of Bigfoot,
the stories surrounding the Sundance Film Festival—and the chosen few moviemakers whose
work gets to screen there each year—are mythical and widespread.
But how does one go about separating fact from fiction when it relates
to the country’s most important independent film event? Six
festival veterans recently spoke with us about where they’ve
gone after Park City—and how their status as “Sundance
alumni” has affected them on their journey to success.

Wayne Kramer
Not a Sundance Virgin Anymore

Having the cooler premiere at Sundance
was the best thing that could have ever happened to the film—and my career. Literally
overnight, people were asking ‘Who is Wayne Kramer?’ and ‘How can
we get an early look at his film?’ With the Sundance stamp of approval
as one of the 16 coveted filmmakers who had a Dramatic Competition
slot, I was suddenly (and finally) on the industry radar.

Even though I had been toiling as a (sometimes-paid)
screenwriter for years, nobody really knew who I was. Now I had
one of the “hot” movies
and the buzz was building.

The Sundance experience itself was exhilarating. The sheer excitement
around the opening was something to file away as one of those cherished
memories. There were about 600 people waiting outside the theater
in the freezing cold, hoping to get a ticket to the screening.

After the first two screenings, the word was
already getting out. Distributors were circling and a print was
being shuttled around
to all the bigwigs in LA. We signed a distribution deal with Lions
Gate by the end of the festival’s first weekend. Both The Hollywood
and Variety gave us glowing reviews, and suddenly
we were a success story. At the same time, I was being courted by
all the major agencies, being invited to all the cool parties and
getting the hard sell. I met Robert Newman, the best director’s agent
in the business (in my opinion), at the ICM party, and we started
a dialogue that would lead to me signing with him…

When I got back to LA after the festival, people
were starting to see the film around town. I was getting phone
calls from studio heads
like Sherry Lansing, who loved it (I’m doing my next project with
Paramount), and directors and actors I’d admired for years. I get
several directing submissions a week these days, and the irony of
it is, no one wants me to write anything anymore! Everyone now sees
me as a director who can get their project greenlit. Before Sundance,
the idea of me suggesting I direct my own work always resulted in
that dull-eyed stare that translates to “forget about it; we’ll never
get the movie made with you attached.”

It’s almost impossible to put a value on how important the Sundance
imprint is on a filmmaker. It’s literally career-making. Without
a doubt, it’s the ultimate seal of approval for an emerging director.
You will always be considered Sundance alumni, along with the likes
of Quentin Tarantino, Bryan Singer, Chris Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson,
Joe Carnahan, etc. For years I longed to be a member of that exclusive
club, and now I do have that distinction on my resume. It’s definitely
worth its weight in gold.

I know that not every Sundance filmmaker becomes
a success story and that success in and of itself in Hollywood
is completely ephemeral,
but where I am now and where I was before the festival is light years
apart… I feel a little pang of envy reading the 2004 Sundance selections,
knowing that those competition filmmakers are about to become the
toast of the town and how that whole experience is still ahead of
them. My advice to them would be to savor it. You’re only a Sundance
virgin once!

Kramer wrote and directed The Cooler, at Sundance 2003

Garbus: The festival continues
to be an extremely powerful force.

Liz Garbus
Sorry, Sundance Matters

The meaning of success at Sundance? I wish I
could be more controversial and say that it really doesn’t matter.
But in fact, it does. When The
won the Grand Jury Prize there in 1998, it jettisoned the
film into the public eye, set the stage for an extremely successful
year of festivals and a theatrical run, leading up to the Academy
Awards. Of course, as a filmmaker, it really puts you on the map
in the way few other festivals can. The festival has been, and continues
to be, an extremely powerful force in the world of documentaries.

Garbus directed and produced The Farm: Angola, USA, Sundance
1998; and The Execution of Wanda Jean, Sundance 2002

Keith Gordon
Drinking and Talking in the Early Days

My first time at sundance was back in 1986, with
a film I acted in, co-produced and co-wrote (but didn’t direct)
called Static.
At that time, the festival was called the “USA Festival.” There was
very little press or industry hype; you could walk into any screening
just before it started. Mostly, it was a lot of filmmakers and film
lovers going to each other’s films and sitting up all night drinking
and talking.

Nonetheless, soon after our screening there, Jonathan Krane, who
ran a company called MCEG, called me to talk about what I wanted
to do next. Before long, I had a deal to direct my first film, The
Chocolate War
. Maybe it would have happened without Sundance,
but maybe not. In which case, God knows what I’d be doing now!

Gordon directed A Midnigh Clear, Sundance
2002; Waking the Dead, Sundance, 2000; and The Singing
, which screened at Sundance 2003

Gordon: Maybe my directorial debut would have
happened without Sundance, but maybe not..

Sandi DuBowski
Sundance Launched My Career

Sundance launched my first feature, Trembling Before G-d,
in a way no other festival could have. We had a fantastic audience
reaction to our world premiere, outstanding press, and unique events
like the first “Shabbat at Sundance” and a “Mormon-Jewish Dialogue
on Homo­sexuality.” The film was picked up for a theatrical deal
and went on to be supported by so many of the people who were at
those Sundance screenings. They are now helping the development of
my new projects. Recently, the film opened nationwide and was just
released on DVD.

DuBowski directed Trembling Before G-d, Sundance 2001

Mark Decena
Sundance Allowed Me to Do it My Way

I  started making short films because I wanted to reconnect with
doing art. After I had two short films in Sundance, I was encouraged
to submit a feature-length script for consideration to the Institute’s
Filmmaker Labs. Tim Breitbach and I co-wrote Dopamine, and
were accepted to the Labs, and from there, were propelled on a four-year
journey to bring the film to life.

While at the Labs, we became extremely aware
of the diversity of artistic voices that surrounded us. Not only
diversity of age, race
and sexual orientation, but there were poets, spoken word artists,
performance artists, you name it. I will always respect Sundance
for that. They have an unwavering resolve to find independent voices
amid the pressure to conform. For myself, I made the film I wanted
to make—and Sundance gave me the encouragement and the courage to
do that.

Decena co-wrote and directed Dopamine, Sundance 2003

Anderson: During those first 10 days I met many people who
have since become friends and colleagues.

Brad Anderson
The Hype (and Partying with The Sex Pistols) Made Me Dizzy

I’ve had three films screen at Sundance. My first, The Darien
(which I shot on 16mm short ends and Super8 for $45,000
of my own money) screened in competition in 1996 and, more than
anything, that experience was my introduction to the independent
film community—it was my first festival. We didn’t sell the movie;
in fact, it hardly got noticed. Our so-called “publicist” managed
to set up a whopping three interviews over 10 days. (She admitted
to us that our movie was a hard sell. ‘Why?,’ we asked. Answer: “Because
the smart people like it.”)

It was mentioned in Film Comment, which pleased me. Variety seemed
to like it. The Hollywood Reporter didn’t even bother to review
it. But during those 10 days, I met many people who have since become
friends and colleagues. Also, I had virtually no expectations going
in, so I had no reason to be disappointed. The fun and excitement
of being at Sundance for the first time (I drank beers with Johnny
Lydon of the Sex Pistols!) was payback enough.

My second film, Next Stop, Wonderland,
screened in 1998. This time we did sell the film to Miramax. The
thrilling, but
grueling, nature of that experience I look back on now as my crash
course in the business and politics of moviemaking. I remember a
harrowing 10 days of cutthroat contract negotiations; the background
pressure of millions of dollars at stake. I remember feeling dizzy
in the epicenter of festival “buzz;” the endless interviews spouting
the same mantra; the demands to meet the new owners’ lofty expectations;
the jealous, occasionally admiring, often hostile glances of fellow
filmmakers passing you by on Main Street…

I left Sundance this time aware that I had fully embarked on a career as a

My most recent experience at Sundance was in 2000, when I premiered Happy
. I felt like a veteran at this point.
I knew the motions, the routines, the rituals of this festival
circus. Also, I’ll admit, after my experience with Next Stop,
there was a sense of inevitability that we would sell this film
after the first screening. And we
did, sort of. Paramount Classics bought the movie—and then for reasons unspecified,
reneged on the deal a month later. Disheartening, to say the least. But there’s
always an upside to any disappointment. I met some agents from Endeavor at
a dinner that year who were interested in signing me. They now rep me and have
helped me find other projects, like The Machinist, the film I am premiering
at this year’s festival. MM

Anderson wrote and directed The Darien Gap, Sundance 1996; Next
Stop, Wonderland
, Sundance 1998; Happy Accidents, Sundance
2000; The Machinist, Sundance 2004