Golden Eddie Honoree – Sundance Institute

March 7, 2022

For four decades, Sundance Institute has been synonymous with American independent filmmaking. While independent cinema existed before 1981 when Robert Redford founded the Institute, it’s hard to imagine indies in the postmodern era without Sundance’s influence. Countering the glamour and largess of the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals, the Sundance Institute launched the Sundance Film Festival in 1985 as a platform for discovery and independent storytelling, to spotlight American fiction and documentary films made outside of the studio system.

The Sundance Festival and Labs soon became a forum for underrepresented voices from ethnic and racial communities, women, the LGBTQ community and unconventional storytellers and artists with limited access to a support system and funding. Over these years, the Institute has helped elevate the careers of Ava DuVernay, Chloé Zhao, the Coen Brothers, Ryan Coogler, Ed Burns, Catherine Hardwicke,

Paul T. Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Todd Haynes, Taika Waititi, Hal Hartley, Dee Rees, John Cameron Mitchell, Errol Morris, Laura Poitras, Kimberly Peirce, Cary Fukunaga, Robert Rodriguez, Kasi Lemmons, Kevin Smith, Roger Ross Williams, David O. Russell, James Mangold, Mary Harron, Lisa Cholodenko, Quentin Tarantino, Andrea Arnold, Kenneth Lonergan, Radha Blank, Spike Lee and Christopher Nolan, among many others.

Since its inception, there’s been one constant other than Redford’s mission, and that is its Founding Senior Director, Artist Programs, Michelle Satter. “It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been with Sundance for 40 years. We launched our first lab for filmmakers in 1981 as a pilot. It was an opportunity to bring 10 filmmakers together to be part of this incredible learning experience and community with an outstanding group of advisors who could support the filmmakers as they developed their work, both as directors and writers. I was invited to that first lab for a month and I obviously stayed longer,” laughs Satter. “On day one, I fell in love with Redford’s vision.

I’ve stayed because I get to be one of those fortunate people who loves what they do. Getting to support artists and connect to the stories that they want to tell is a privilege. It’s such a creative space that holds generosity, which I feel is in short supply these days. And, supporting filmmakers through the lifeline of their project, from the early stage of development to getting a film out into the world is a very rewarding part of the work.

Being in the creative support system for artists is something I care deeply about. I have many other responsibilities at Sundance, but discovering new artists and supporting them creatively at a lab is where my joy has always lived. And, I got to be part of building something that I saw could make a real impact and make meaning in the world for artists, but also for audiences as well.”

Since that first lab, the Institute has strived to create a space of belonging and creativity that holds generosity as an essential value. Over the years, the Sundance Institute has expanded its reach, and brought on a committed and passionate staff to bring the programs to life. In addition to nurturing directors and screenwriters, the Labs support producers, episodic writers, playwrights, emerging media artists, composers and editors. Since 2002, our work has also included a commitment to supporting nonfiction artists as well.

Editing has always been a focus of the Institute starting with the Directors Lab, where directors get to rehearse, shoot and edit scenes from their screenplays. Workshopping their most challenging scenes is a formative learning experience for them in every stage of the process. Many of theeditors who have worked at our  Labs have collaborated and partnered with their directors and built substantial relationships that have continued well after the labs

We also launched the Sally Menke Memorial Editing  Fellowship 11 years ago to honor her memory, her brilliance in editing and love of mentoring. We select one Menke Fellow each year to participate in the Directors Lab community, and then provide year-long support through two mentorships with accomplished editors,” shares Satter.

Additionally, for close to 20 years, the Documentary Film Program has been deeply committed to promoting independent feature editing as an art, and elevating the role of nonfiction editors. The Edit and Story Lab is unique in the field for creating a space for editors to discuss the craft of editing with accomplished advisors who give feedback to director/editor teams focused on advancing the cut of their current project. To support the next generation of editors, the Documentary

Program created the Contributing Editor Fellowship, the Art of Editing Fellowship and continues its partnership with the Karen Schmeer Fellowship. “During our conversations with producers and directors, we always say, budget for time in post-production and know that your editors are important collaborators, worth their weight in gold. They make the impossible possible by bringing their craft, imagination and bold creativity to the art of editing,” Satter notes.

Satter says of Sundance, “All of our labs have provided a place for artists to build a community together, a safe space where you can be vulnerable, take risks and know that failure is just a stepping stone to discovery and learning. You don’t have to know the answers yet, but we ask you to bring your full heart and be fully present in this experience. Everyone is here for a reason.”

Partnerships have always been essential to the Institute’s longevity and success. Satter notes, “Our relationship with ACE is new for us, and we’re really excited about working together, acknowledging ACE Executive Director Jenni McCormick, President Kevin Tent and the ACE Board’s amazing support. I see this as the beginning of a very powerful and deep relationship between Sundance and American Cinema Editors.

Jenni has been incredibly generous to the Menke Fellows, in giving them an associate membership to ACE, inviting them to the editing conferences and embracing them as part of the editing community.”

The Institute also partners with Adobe for the annual Art of Editing Reception at the Sundance Film Festival which was created by Kristin Feeley (Deputy Director, Documentary Film Program) eight years ago to celebrate and recognize the essential contribution of editors to the remarkable group of Festival fiction and nonfiction films. The reception is also a moment to acknowledge editors who have made mentoring part of their life’s work. The recent Art of Editing Reception honored Dody Dorn, ACE, and Toby Shimin, two extraordinary editors and mentors.

Over the years, the Institute evolved as technology and the needs of the community changed. Many of the artists theysupported lacked essential resources. In the  early days of the Labs, film equipment and stock were expensive and not easy to obtain or store. In the 21st century, aspiring filmmakers now have more agency. Access to film and editing software are available on mobile phones and laptops. Software, strong Wi-Fi and external hard drives have replaced film stock and processing as essential filmmaking tools. While the Institute has kept in step with technological changes, the core of the

Sundance experience is the extensive network and vibrant creative community. “We have always been part of supporting an industry around independent film,” notes Satter. “There’s no surprise that the industry has continued to evolve. It has and will always be vital for Sundance to embrace change and listen to the artists and what the field needs going forward.”

Looking at the Institute and its programs over the past five years, “we realized that our programs were siloed. Fiction and documentary programs were separated, but artists were shaking things up. Documentaries, fiction film and episodic storytelling were overlapping as artists looked to break down conventions.

“To more effectively serve our community, with our Producers Program, the Institute created combined learning opportunities for fiction and nonfiction producers, as well as separate tracks when needed. They also work closely with artists to help them find opportunities to expand the mediumthey work in, and with them ask, does  this idea work best as a feature, a series, a short film or a documentary, so we can holistically support an artist across storytelling forms.”

Satter notes, “We’ve also been looking at how we can help artists sustain themselves, which has always been really tough, and especially right now. We have been putting more of ourresources into granting, to advance a project or to sustain an  artist through a period of time when they’re working but not getting paid for that work. Additionally, we’ve been discussing the independent film and media landscape, focusing on financing and distribution with many stakeholders, to find opportunities where Sundance and its partners can make a significant impact.”

The global pandemic has tested many institutions throughout the world. The intimacy of working in the same room has been curtailed almost entirely but Sundance has continued to support artists in new ways. Satter shares, “Over these past two years, we’ve transitioned to online Labs, Intensives and events, where building a community online can still be a beautiful, connected experience. We all find inspiration in hearing artists talk about their projects and where they find meaning and personal connection in their work. The Labs, where we aresupporting artists in our Feature Film, Episodic, Documentary, Interdisciplinary, Indigenous, Ignite, Producers, Catalyst and Film Music Programs are the beginning of our journey with artists. The support system and community that we all build together brings meaning and connection which extends way beyond the boundaries of their first Sundance experience.”

With the impediments come opportunities for growth and some silver linings. Satter relates that “right before the pandemic we launched Sundance Collab, a digital space that has opened access for creators from all over the world to hone their craft, build community and discover strategies for professional and career development. It’s open, accessible and free to global audiences, with the exception of courses and some of the networking opportunities.”

Despite the inherent Americanness of the Sundance Institute, its vision is not myopic and has always had international cinema and industries in its sights. “Sundance is absolutely global,” confirms Satter. “Since the 1990s, our programs have made cultural exchange a priority, pushing through boundaries that are geographical, cultural or political to bring together a world community of artists. I have been involved with my colleagues in starting labs all over the world, supporting artists on every continent with the exception of Antarctica.”

Describing Sundance’s commitment to Latin America, she adds that one of her first directives was to seek partners in Latin America. “It was an incredible privilege to be in Mexico and collaborate on our first international lab with producer Bertha Navarro,” Satter relates. “We’ve always worked with partners on the ground. Most of our labs have focused on screenwriting, because there’s a real need that we found around the world to support the storytellers. Our work internationally has always functioned as a two-way street as our American filmmakers have as much to learn from our counterparts and vice versa.

Satter recalls, “I just ran into Guillermo del Toro at a screening a week ago. To think that he was at our first lab in Mexico as a fellow,” she laughs. “That was a long time ago. The Cuarón brothers were there as well. It’s been an amazing journey for me personally, but also for the collective team of Sundance and the artists that we’ve supported.

“In the U.S. and in our international work, the Institute has always had a deep commitment to reflect diversity and inclusion among the artists we support. Right now, we’re beginning to experience some real change in the opportunities for the artists that we supported over the years. Seeing the success of Sterlin Harjo, co-creator of Reservation Dogs, has been truly exciting. We supported him in our Indigenous and Feature Film Program labs. In his new role as the showrunner of Reservation Dogs,

he’s supporting a next generation of indigenous writers and directors. We’re seeing an amazing ripple effect that Sterlin and so many of our Advisors have started.” Satter reflects, “A lot of people ask, ‘How do you define success for Sundance?’ And one of the most powerful examples of success for me is when our fellows come back as Advisors. They take all that they learned at the Labs. They go out into the world to make their films, and then they return as Advisors to give back to the community that fostered them.”

“Redford had a clear vision of what he wanted to do. By bringing artists together, he believed they would forge a creative space for the development of new work. By supporting a community of artists, they would give back to one another and create a culture of generosity. And, of course, that connection with audiences is so key as well. It’s on one side artist developmentand the other side is audience engagement and cultural impact.

That vision motivates us to this day, and we have a strong and growing group of artists, staff, advisors, Board members, funders and stakeholders who have consistently made our work possible,” notes Satter.

Sundance Institute is eager to be back up full force in a postpandemic world. While the community and creativity continue to thrive even in our virtual worlds, there is a yearning to be back at the Sundance Resort for the Labs and in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival during a frosty January. There is a hunger for filmmakers from across the country and indeed the world to raise a glass together and share a meal to discuss their paths and their passions. The same in-person breeding ground that supported such films as The Farewell, Crip Camp, El Norte The Infiltrators, Sorry to Bother You, Eighth Grade, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Hereditary, RBG, Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Top of the Lake, Real Women Have Curves, Winter’s Bone, Whiplash, Dear White People, Little Miss Sunshine and Beasts of the Southern Wild calls for the intimacy of in-person. Thank you to Sundance Institute for supporting emerging editors and nurturing the spirit of storytelling in its many facets.

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