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Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization founded by Robert Redford in 1981 that actively advances the work of filmmakers and storytellers worldwide. The Institute has offices in Park City, Los Angeles, and New York City, and provides creative and financial support to emerging and aspiring filmmakers, directors, producers, film composers, screenwriters, playwrights, and theater artists through a series of Labs and Fellowships. The programs of Sundance Institute include the Sundance Film Festival, a premier platform for American and international independent film.
The Sundance Institute's founding staff, assembled in spring of 1980, included Executive Director Sterling Van Wagenen, Director of Film Development Programs Jenny Walz Selby, and Director of Development Jon Lear. Frank Daniel was secured as Artistic Director. This staff produced the first Filmmakers Lab in June 1981, which fortuitously followed the Academy Awards at which Ordinary People (the directorial debut of Robert Redford) won numerous awards, including Best Picture. Michelle Satter joined the staff in June 1981 and subsequently opened up the Los Angeles office of the Institute.
The Sundance Institute's 1981 founding Board of Directors included Robert Redford, Frank Daniel, George C. White, Reg Gipson, Jon Lear, Ian Calderon, Jack Crosby, Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Geller, Alan Jacobs, Bill Wittliff, and Marjorie Benton. Sydney Pollack was also instrumental in helping found the Institute.
In 1985, the Sundance Institute assumed management of the fledgling United States Film Festival, which had been experiencing financial problems. The Institute hired Tony Safford from the AFI Kennedy Center program as Program Director and renamed the festival.
Sundance Institute programs
Sundance Feature Film Program
Through year-round support and a series of Labs, the Feature Film Program supports emerging independent screenwriters and directors through the development of their feature film projects. For three weeks each June in Sundance, Utah, Directors Lab Fellows rehearse, shoot and edit 4-6 scenes from their screenplays under the mentorship of accomplished directors, editors, cinematographers, and actors who serve as Creative Advisors. Surrounded by seasoned professionals, yet removed from the typical pressures of production, Lab Fellows are offered a unique opportunity to see the script “on its feet,” develop skills, and take risks.
In addition to the creative support offered through Labs and workshops, Sundance Institute helps independent filmmakers complete their work through various grants and fellowships. Many of these opportunities are designated for filmmakers selected to participate in the Institute's Feature Film Program.
Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program
The Sundance Documentary Film Program assists nonfiction filmmakers from around the world with a series of workshops in editing, storytelling, and scoring for documentary films as well as providing grants to nonfiction film projects through the Sundance Documentary Fund. The Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program provides year-round support to nonfiction contemporary-issue filmmakers internationally. The program encourages the exploration of innovative nonfiction storytelling, and promotes the exhibition of documentary films to a broader audience. It supports independent artists both domestically and internationally through the Sundance Documentary Fund, the Documentary Composers Laboratory and Edit and Story Laboratory, panels at the Filmmakers Lodge at the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Independent Producers Conference, and a variety of collaborative international documentary initiatives.
The Sundance Documentary Fund is a key program of the Documentary Film Program, dedicated to supporting U.S. and international documentary films that focus on current human rights issues, freedom of expression, social justice, civil liberties, and exploring critical issues of our time. The Documentary Fund was established at Sundance Institute in 2002 with a gift from the Open Society Institute and is supported by a leadership grant from the Ford Foundation. Robert Redford also approached Asian media billionaire Keyur Patel in 2010 to form a joint venture to fund documentaries as part of his indie production vision. In 2012 there was another venture formed with Anand Mahindra of India for Sundance program.
Documentary Fund grants are announced 2–3 times a year and between 2002–2006, the Fund has disbursed almost $5.2 million to over 175 projects in 52 countries. In supporting such work, the Sundance Documentary Fund encourages the diverse exchange of ideas crucial to developing an open society, raising public consciousness about human rights abuses and restrictions of civil liberties, and fostering an ongoing dialogue about these issues. For more information, visit sundance.org/documentary.
Sundance Film Music Program
Connecting filmmakers with musicians, the Film Music Program's Composers Lab allows accomplished musicians to explore composing for film. The Sundance Institute Composers Lab, held each summer at the Sundance Resort, provides a group of six talented composers with valuable first-hand experience composing for film. By pairing participating composers with emerging filmmakers supported by the Institute's Feature Film and Documentary Film Programs, the Lab aims to enhance the role of music in independent film. With leading film composers serving as Creative Advisors, Composers Lab Fellows work closely with both documentary and feature filmmakers in a supportive atmosphere designed to promote experimentation and collaboration.
Composers Lab Alumni include Tyler Bates, Billy White Acre, Kristopher Carter, Ryan Beveridge, Penka Kouneva, Nick Laird-Clowes, Ceiri Torjussen, Billy Childs, Mark De Gli Antoni, Raz Mesinai, Don Byron, Gyan Riley, and Marco d'Ambrosio.
Composers Lab Advisors include John Adams, Terence Blanchard, Carter Burwell, George S. Clinton, Stewart Copeland, Mychael Danna, Richard Gibbs, Osvaldo Golijov, Rolfe Kent, David Mansfield, Thomas Newman, Basil Poledouris, Graeme Revell, Edward Shearmur, Shirley Walker, and Christopher Young.
The Music Cafe is a night club venue for rock, singer-songwriters, folk, country, and hip hop on Main Street in Park City during the Sundance Film Festival. Music Cafe daytime programming, produced by ASCAP, has featured such artists as India.Arie, Peter Gabriel, The Black Eyed Peas, Suzanne Vega, Sweet Pea Atkinson, Was (Not Was) and many others.
Sundance Theatre Program
With a series of Labs and retreats that provide a creative environment for playwrights, directors, composers, and librettists, to develop new work with dramaturgs and full casts, the Theatre Program, under the direction of Philip Himberg, supports the development of independent theatre. Lab Alumni and projects include Tanya Barfield's Blue Door, Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas' The Light in the Piazza, Lisa Kron's Well, Jessica Hagedorn's Dogeaters, Stew's Passing Strange, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik's Spring Awakening, Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project and Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife.
Held at the Sundance Resort in Utah, the physical resources for the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab include four rehearsal rooms, a writing room and a music room, set in the midst of thousands of acres of mountain scenery. Projects rehearse every other day to give playwrights adequate time for rewrites. There is no physically controllable space, such as a 'black box.' Although lighting and scenic production values are not available, designers have sometimes participated as part of the development of the projects text. When a project is accepted into the lab, it is assigned a Sundance dramaturg who, in collaboration with the Producing Artistic Director, will work with that project prior to the Theatre Lab residency period.
The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at White Oak, Florida is a two-week laboratory focusing on the development of musicals and ensemble-created projects. Plays at White Oak are cast individually and rehearse daily to afford the musical productions the luxury of ongoing time to learn new music without interruption. The Lab is held in collaboration with the Howard Gilman Foundation each fall at White Oak in Yulee, Florida. White Oak Director John Lukas and his staff are instrumental in providing this extraordinary opportunity for Sundance-supported artists.
The Sundance Playwright's Retreat at Ucross, Wyoming is an eighteen-day writing colony where five playwrights and a composer convene each year to put pen to paper, and where a Sundance dramaturg can respond to work at an early stage of the creative process. Like the other two Labs, the Ucross Retreat includes both emerging and established artists, creating an environment of peer mentorship, professional growth and unfettered, unpressured creativity.
Under the ongoing guidance of Creative Advisors and Ucross Foundation Executive Director Sharon Dynak, the Retreat takes place each February and provides a unique opportunity for Sundance-supported playwrights and composers. Artists are selected by invitation only.
The Sundance Institute Theatre Program is in the exploratory phase of a multi-year program supporting the work of theatre artists in East Africa, as well as an exchange program between Sundance Theatre Labs alumni and East African writers, director and performers. The goal is to create a program in East Africa which reflects Sundance’s primary values: accessibility, mentorship, professionalism, advancement of the individual artistic voice, and rigorous artistic standards. Sundance recognizes that the specific cultural, social, political and artistic realities of East African life (unique to each country as well as to the continent) be recognized and honored in both the design and the implementation of the Sundance East Africa programs. To that end, an esteemed group of East African artists, all alumni of the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab in Utah, have been brought on board as primary in-country consultants in the planning and implementation of the program, along with American theatre artists committed to intercultural exchange with the region.
Sundance East Africa acknowledges two primary goals for this exchange program: the growth of the American theatre artist and field through interactions in East Africa and with East African artists, and simultaneously the growth of the East African theatre artist and field through international exposure and exchange.
A May 2008 visit to East Africa was the first exploratory meeting between Philip Himberg, consultant Roberta Levitow, and two American guest artists with the theatre communities in the region, in anticipation of what we hope will be a series of annual subsequent Lab projects. It will always be the goal and practice of Sundance East Africa to explore and invest in the East African theatre community (as it does with the American theatre community) "wide and deep."
Native American Initiative
Other special initiatives of the Institute include the Native American Initiative which facilitates the participation of Native and Indigenous artists in the Institute's artistic development programs and the Sundance Film Festival. Rooted in the recognition of a rich tradition of story telling and artistic expression by Native Americans, Sundance Institute's Native American Initiative is designed to support the development of Native and Indigenous artists and the exhibition of their work by identifying Native artists for the Institute's core programs. To date the Initiative has facilitated the participation of many Native artists into the Sundance Film Festival, the Independent Producers Conference, and the Institute's Feature Film Program. In 2008 the Initiative expanded its focus to include outreach to documentarians, theatre artists, and musicians seeking financial and creative support through the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, the Theatre Program, and the Film Music Program. As part of Sundance Institute's long tradition of supporting Native cinema, the Sundance Film Festivalprovides a world stage for compelling and innovative films by Native American and Indigenous filmmakers. The Festival also hosts the annual Native Forum, a program of panel discussions, filmmaker workshops, and networking events that provide opportunities for indigenous filmmakers to share their expertise and knowledge with each other and the larger independent film community. The Ford Foundation Fellowships bring Native filmmakers to the Festival each year.
From 1994 to 2004, the Film Festival presented Native films as part a dedicated screening category. In recognition of the evolution of Native filmmaking and as a way of introducing a broader audience to Native cinema, the Festival began incorporating Native and Indigenous films into its official film program in 2005.
Over the course of its history, the Sundance Film Festival has showcased a range of work by Native and Indigenous filmmakers including dramatic films like Sterlin Harjo's Four Sheets to the Wind, Sherman Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing, Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals, and Rachel Perkins' One Night the Moon, documentaries such as Heather Rae's Trudell, Tom Murray and Allan Collins' Dhakiyarr vs. the King, and Merata Mita's Hotere, and short films like Gabriel Lopez-Shaw and Sherwin Bitsui's Chrysalis, and Taika Waititi's Two Cars, One Night.
Sundance Collection at UCLA
The Institute maintains the Sundance Collection at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) to conserve and archive the history of independent film. Film preservation is an especially pressing need in independent cinema. Despite their historical, artistic and cultural value, good prints of far too many indie films – even some made within the past decade – no longer exist. Chemical decomposition, neglect, and the changing ownership of film libraries have caused these prints to disappear.
To create a living record of the history of independent film, Sundance Institute and UCLA Film and Television Archive initiated the Sundance Collection at UCLA in 1997, and with contributions from studios and distributors as well as hundreds of individual filmmakers, the Collection’s holdings have grown to include over 300 film prints. The archive represents a diversity of work from the Sundance Film Festival as well as projects developed through the Sundance Labs. From features to documentaries to shorts, prints in the Collection include Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Reservoir Dogs, The Living End, Smoke Signals, Amores Perros, Harlan County, USA, Love & Basketball, and Welcome to the Dollhouse, among many other works that might otherwise no longer exist.
The first significant archive of its kind, the Collection also provides a central resource for the study of independent film, containing a rare assemblage of material related to the history of independent cinema, including press kits and filmmaker interviews.
To further its preservation work, the Collection continues to actively seek donations from filmmakers and studios alike. By donating prints to the Sundance Collection at UCLA, filmmakers can join us in ensuring that your own work and the heritage of independent cinema endures for future generations to experience and to study. Company Donors: Artisan Entertainment, Gramercy Pictures, Lions Gate Films, Miramax Films, New Line Cinema, October Films, OTM, Sony Pictures Classics, Strand Releasing and Trimark Pictures.