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Sundance Film Festival Going Underground?

The big buzz around the movie Internet yesterday was the announcement by the Sundance Film Festival that in 2010 they will introduce a new section of the fest called NEXT, which will feature “six to eight films selected for their innovative and original work in low- and no-budget filmmaking.” While that criteria can include a wide range of films, this announcement could mean that the festival is opening itself up to films exhibiting an underground aesthetic.

Or not. The official press release from Sundance is a bit vague on exactly they’re looking for in films to fill this section. That’s ok since it’s their first year trying it out, but it’ll be interesting to see exactly what the festival considers “innovative and original,” especially since one of the chief complaints against the festival in recent years is that a majority of their selections exhibit neither of those things.

It would be nice to see some underground films representin’ at Sundance, although the odds of earning one of those six or eight slots is beyond enormous. As of yesterday, the festival says they have received 3,689 films with more submissions expected to roll in up to their Sept. 25th late deadline. It’s already a major crapshoot to get into Sundance proper. So now that the fest is planning to screen types of films it’s traditionally ignored, will that encourage a whole segment of filmmakers who have written off submitting to Sundance to give it a go again this year?

The press release gives NEXT the official motto <=>, a symbol that means “less than equals greater than.” But an interesting note to that appears in indieWire’s news article on the announcement. Cooper tells iW that the symbol is “a bit of an homage to Miranda July.” I’m not sure what that homage is referencing of July’s, but the first thing I thought of when I saw the symbol was Michael Snow’s classic 1969 structuralist film <—>, which is sometimes referred to as Back and Forth.

Maybe it’s too much to read into, but referencing July instead of Snow could seem to indicate that NEXT probably won’t be including fully experimental works. July, of course, started out primarily making short underground experimental videos like Nest of Tens and then went on to direct the indie feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won a special jury prize at Sundance in 2005.

The Sundance Film Festival will run next year Jan. 21-31. As mentioned above, the fest is still accepting submissions until Sept. 25.

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  • Nathan Wrann says:

    I thought it was odd that they didn’t define or at least give an idea of what they mean by “low and no budget” filmmaking.

    I’m sure that my definition (having made two features for about $15,000, combined) is considerably different than their definition. Especially considering that “Humpday” was referenced (in a yahoo news article, not sure if it was Sundance or the journalist that put it in there) (which is hard to nail down a budget number on because the filmmaker won’t release any, (strangely, this article http://www.onscreenmag.com/feature-articles/seriously-funny-matters/ segues from a discussion of “Humpday” to Washington states tax credit which is eligible for films over $500,000. Which makes me wonder if “Humpday” was a recipient of those incentives)) and Miranda July who, as you said, made “Me and You and Everyone We Know” for $2mil. Hardly lo/no.

    I also think it’s odd that they make this announcement when ONLY the late deadline is left and filmmakers need to pay $100 to submit the film. That’s a mighty steep price to a true lo/no filmmaker.

    • The Sundance statement doesn’t reference any specific film title, so the Yahoo author put that in there, probably just to throw in a recent “mumblecore” title, a genre that is referenced in the statement. And my guess is that you’re on the right track re: Sundance’s concept of “low” budget, but we’ll have to see. Also, that’s a very interesting last point you make.

  • Nathan Wrann says:

    I sent an e-mail to programming AT sundance DOT org with the following questions:

    1) “Lo/No budget” can mean many different things to many different people. What is the criteria for a lo/no budget film? Is there a budget cap that you will be implementing for the films that fit this category?

    2) If I submitted a film last year that will fit the Lo/No budget category ($10,000 budget) can I resubmit it this year (final cut was made on 03/30/09) for consideration?

    I’ll let you know if I hear back.

  • Nathan Wrann says:

    Finally got a response back from programming AT sundance DOT org (after sending a follow up e-mail)

    Here’s what they sent in regards to my questions:


    The films that play in the NEXT category, like all of our categories, are determined by the Programmers AFTER the film is selected for the festival. When you are submitting a film, you are submitting to the festival as a whole. Programmers will be making their choices based on atmosphere and aesthetic.

    For a better idea of the NEXT category, I would direct you to this article: http://www.indiewire.com/article/john_cooper_we_are_looking_for_creativity_born_of_limitations/

    If your film was completed AFTER our deadlines last year, then you are still eligible to submit to this year’s festival.


    Programming Department

    Sundance Institute

    8530 Wilshire Blvd., 3rd Floor

    Beverly Hills, CA 90211

    It’s interesting to note that in the article cited in the e-mail the film “The American Astronaut” is used as an example. “The American Astronaut” has a budget “between 1 and 2 million dollars” according to the wikipedia page about the film.

    Taking this information, and the information in the e-mail into consideration it appears that it will be business as usual for Sundance. They will select whatever films they select (with no additional consideration for low/no budget, starless features) and then the films (if any fit) will be marketed in the “NEXT” category. In other words a $5,000, $1,000,000 or $10,000,000 “Indie” film all have the same chance of getting selected.

  • I REALLY appreciate all the follow-up, Nathan.

  • It’s amazing that they are actually going to these extreme’s. It makes me wonder why they would need to add this category at all. Maybe I’m a little naive, but if a film good is good no matter what the budget shouldn’t it be selected? or is this a way of saying that lower quality films now have a chance? Either way thanks guys. It gives me some hope.

  • Edward Hobbs says:


    You absolutely cannot rely on the budget information on IMDB as a reference. Those numbers are grossly inflated, to establish a negotiating baseline when trying to sell the film.

    Are they more often than not selecting bigger budgeted films that are studio films in “Indie” clothes? Maybe.

    Keep the faith, as good stories will always find an audience.

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