Story and photos by Charlene Rodriguez
The Sundance Institute has been a prominent organization for independent filmmakers and Utah culture since its creation. However, the Institute has significantly evolved. While filmmaking and collaboration remain at its core, the Institute continues to expand its reach by encouraging diversity and inclusion through its programs.
According to the Institute’s website, the Sundance Film Festival was first established in 1978 by Sterling Van Wagenen in Salt Lake City. Yet the Institute wasn’t founded until 1981 by Robert Redford.
Having initially started as an organization aimed at promoting American-made films and Utah filmmakers, the Institute now extends past its local reach, offering opportunities for upcoming filmmakers from national and international backgrounds.
Among the plethora of programs the Institute provides, its fellowships for young filmmakers stand out.
The Ignite Fellowship, as detailed on the Institute’s website, is a collaboration between the Institute and Adobe that is open to filmmakers between the ages of 18-24. Out of thousands of applicants, only 15 are selected for the year-long fellowship. The experience includes an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sundance Film Festival, as well as mentorship from Institute alumni professionals and access to workshops, labs and other associated programs.
“The Sundance Ignite Fellowship is a great opportunity to learn more about the ins and outs of the industry and also be connected with other emerging filmmakers,” stated Maya Cueva, a 2019 Ignite Fellow, during an email interview.
Ignite Fellows are selected based on their submission of their one-to-eight-minute short films as well as “their original voice, diverse storytelling and rigor in their filmmaking pursuits,” according to a 2018 news release posted on the Institute’s website.
Cueva detailed her experience attending the 2019 Sundance Film Festival: “It was an amazing experience going to films and events, being able to discuss and pitch my first feature documentary, and being able to connect with the other fellows in the program.”
When asked how this experience has impacted her perspective on filmmaking, Cueva said, “This experience has definitely given me an opportunity to challenge the way I make documentaries and my style of filmmaking, particularly because the group of fellows do both narrative and documentaries.”
Opportunities like the Ignite Fellowship allow young filmmakers to network and learn from professionals in the field. This has the potential to jump-start careers while providing the professional environment to further foster individual voice and style.
Rooted in Utah
While expanding its home offices, broadening its reach and diversifying its stories, the Institute remains grounded by its Utah roots. It aims to encourage the participation of audiences of all ages through its community screening programs.
The Filmmakers in the Classroom program began in 2000 but is now an annual opportunity for local high school students to view and later discuss a short film with the creators themselves.
“We’re definitely doing those to bring those middle, junior high and high school students in and kind of expose them to independent films but also giving them the opportunity to meet filmmakers as well,” said Laralee Ownby, assistant director of Utah Community Programs, during a phone interview.
Year-long programs like the Summer Film Series serve as an option for Utah locals across the state to experience independent films without having to trudge through the grueling festival traffic and crowds.“All of our year-long Utah programs are free and open to the public. That’s one thing that we want to make sure of. That we’re reaching everyone in Utah.”
The effectiveness of these programs speaks for itself. Through an email interview, Jenny Diersen, Park City special events and economic development manager, shared statistics from previous years’ programs.
During the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, the Institute’s Utah Community and Student programming reached a total of 11,387 people. This includes Filmmakers in the Classroom, free screenings for high school and college students and various other community screenings. The 2018 Summer Film Series reached a total of 4,113 people over the course of eight screenings.
Elevating Art and Culture Locally
Even outside of its own programs, the Institute continues to contribute to community programs that support the development of art and culture in Park City. Project ABC is one of these outreach efforts.
According to the Project ABC: Arts, Beauty, Culture website, Project ABC is a Summit County initiative that focuses on the promotion, expansion and implementation of artistic and cultural opportunities for local emerging artists and individuals interested in the arts.
“This project includes recommendations for City, County, Businesses and individuals to help grow many areas of arts and culture,” Diersen said. “As arts and culture grows in our community I think it will be important to make sure we continue [to] represent our unique community, history and environment.”
Collaborative community efforts like Project ABC ensure artistic sustainability throughout the city. Although Sundance focuses primarily on filmmaking and film production, its outreach encompass a variety of expressional styles.
While the Sundance Institute continues to grow and develop new opportunities for upcoming filmmakers, it doesn’t lose track of its background. With its community programs reaching thousands of individuals each year and support for local artistic cultivation, the Institute keeps inspiring new generations of artists and filmmakers.