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Sundance Festival Launches Film Grads' Careers

Film festivals can take unknown directors from ramen to riches.
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Reels of film for a film festival

France has Cannes; Italy has Venice; Canada has Toronto. And the United States? We have Sundance—the big independent film festival in the small town of Park City, Utah.

The festival began in 1978 with the threefold goal of showcasing American-made films, featuring films made outside of the Hollywood studio business and drawing directors to film their movies in Utah. Since then, Academy Award-winning actor Robert Redford's leadership has helped grow the festival to one of international acclaim.

Now every January, all film lovers' eyes focus on the screens at Sundance to see the best in independent and documentary films.  And unknown filmmakers hope that the festival becomes a launching pad for their career.

Film Festivals Where You Can Gain Exposure

Festivals across the country accept submissions from student and beginning filmmakers. Some festivals are even geared specifically for students.

  • Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Student Awards
  • Austin Film Festival AA
  • Chicago International Film Festival BC AA
  • Delta Moon Student Film Festival
  • Feel Good Film Festival
  • International Student Film Festival Hollywood
  • Ivy Film Festival
  • New York City Short Film Festival (NYC Shorts)
  • The Shortie Awards – Student Film and News Festival
  • UFVA's Touring Festival of International Student Film + Video

Sundance Film Festival Alumni

These lucky directors got their big break by debuting their films at Sundance. Many were recent film school graduates at the time. Will you be the next filmmaker strike gold in Utah?

Joel and Ethan Coen

This dynamic duo has been well known in the independent film community since winning the Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic category in 1985 for the film "Blood Simple." The wunderkind brothers both graduated from Simon's Rock College. In 1979, the school became a part of Bard College and is now known as Bard College at Simon's Rock. Ethan Coen later attended Princeton University. Riding the success of their Sundance win, the brothers went on to write, direct and produce such memorable films as "Raising Arizona," "The Big Lebowski" and "No Country for Old Men." The brothers also expanded their Oscar-winning film "Fargo" into a successful TV series of the same name.

Steven Soderbergh

The son of a college professor, Steven spent his high school years taking film animation classes at his father's university, Louisiana State, where he was able to use secondhand equipment to make several short films. His feature film directorial debut, "Sex, Lies and Videotape" took the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990. The film was a huge critical success and launched his career, as well as the careers of his actors. Steven has gone on to direct box office hits "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," the "Ocean's Eleven" franchise and "Contagion." He's also credited with producing a wide range of films including "Michael Clayton" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Soderbergh has threatened to retire but keeps bouncing back with movies for streaming giants, usually starring Oscar-winner Meryl Streep.

Robert Rodriguez

After attending the film program at The University of Texas – Austin, Robert sold his body to science to secure funding for his first feature-length film, "El Mariachi." After debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993, Robert signed a lucrative distribution deal with a major studio that allowed him to make many of his other well-known films: the "Sin City" and "Spy Kids" franchises, "Desperado" and an installment of "Grindhouse."

Edward Burns

Transferring from The State University of New York at Albany in his junior year to study filmmaking at Hunter College in Manhattan, Ed spent his last two years in school writing scripts for short films. After personally handing Robert Redford a copy of "The Brothers McMullen," the film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize in 1995. Ed directed "She's The One," the sequel to "The Brothers McMullen," and "Newlyweds." Ed has found greater success in front of the camera, starring in movies such as "Saving Private Ryan," "The Holiday" and "Man on a Ledge."

Morgan Spurlock

Rejected five times by the University of Southern California, Morgan eventually decided to move to the East Coast, graduating from the New York University Film Department in 1993. His best known film, "Super Size Me," premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, where Morgan was the recipient of the Documentary Directing Award. Since then, he's continued his first-person documentary style with "Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?" and "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold."

Wes Anderson

Quirky festival favorite Wes Anderson brought his short film, "Bottle Rocket," to Sundance in 1993, where it so blew away director James L. Brooks he produced the feature-length film by the same name. Since, Anderson has dabbled in other filmmaking genres, such as stop motion animation in "Isle of Dogs," and "Fantastic Mr. Fox." He's a cult favorite through his star-studded films "The Royal Tennenbaums," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," and "The French Dispatch," usually giving the plummiest role in each to Bill Murray.

Lisa Cholodenko

Cholodenko's fever-pitched drama "High Art" premiered at Sundance in 1999, where it revived the career of former Brat Packer Ally Sheedy, and featured an extraordinary early career performance by Patricia Clarkson. "High Art" won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for Cholodenko. Since, Cholodenko has returned to the fest with her 2010 film, "The Kids Are All Right," which was a breakout movie that year. She has seamlessly moved between film and television, and directed the HBO mini series, "Olive Kitteridge," which starred Frances McDormand.

Ava DuVernay

DuVernay was the first black woman to win the director prize at Sundance in 2012 for her film, "Middle of Nowhere." She's become a cultural influencer with her socially and politically conscious films such as 2014's "Selma," and was nominated for a documentary Oscar in 2017 for "13th." She made a successful leap to streaming with her 2019 limited series, "When They See Us," about the Central Park jogger case, in which she co-wrote, produced, and directed for Netflix. Her work on the series earned 16 Emmy nominations.

How Film Festivals Can Boost Your Career

Attending a film festival provides many benefits—especially if you submit your project. Take a look at how festivals can get you experience and exposure.

  • Volunteering lets you see behind the scenes.
  • Other filmmakers' work can inspire you.
  • Handing out samples of your work is a good way to market yourself.
  • Networking with filmmakers, distributers, agents and talent scouts can open industry doors.
  • Having your film screened looks great on your resume.
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