Exploring Indie in Entertainment Arts: An Overview of the Sundance Film Festival

The Sundance Film Festival provides independent filmmakers a chance to showcase their films in a major platform. And every year in January, it makes Salt Lake City shine brighter than Hollywood.

The Land of the Rising Sundance

What is now an internationally recognized film festival that filmmakers from all over the world aspire to be a part of started out as a local effort. The Sundance Film Festival was founded in August 1978 by Sterling Van Wagenen and John Earle, then-member of the Utah Film Commission, to help drive film production in the scenic state of Utah.

At that time, Van Wagenen was working as the head of actor Robert Redford’s production company, Wildwood. It is likely because of this association that people came to believe that it was the actor himself who created the festival, and that it was named as such based on his film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

While eventually, in 1991, the festival was indeed renamed to Sundance in honor of the said film, the fact is that in its inception, it was originally named simply as the Utah/US Film Festival. Today, the festival continues to be run and organized by the Sundance Institute, and remains to be one of the foremost independent film festivals in the world.

Submission Criteria for Sundance

Since the Oscars and other entertainment arts award shows mostly focus on movies from major studios, Sundance is an important part of making sure independent films get exposure and recognition.

Every year, the Sundance Institute chooses between 115 and 125 feature films, between 60 and 80 short films, and between 10 and 15 episodic projects for the festival program. Between 20 and 30 New Frontier exhibition and performance projects are also chosen.

2018 Sundance Film Festival Winners
The Miseducation of Cameron Post and other winners of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

Films and projects that meet the eligibility requirements can be submitted for consideration. Sundance has a team that watches these selections and decides which ones will be part of the festival. While there are thousands of submissions each year, only a small portion end up being selected, which makes it all the more coveted by aspiring participants.

The criteria for submissions vary by competition. In general, submissions for feature films must be either world premieres or international premieres that were completed no earlier than 2018 for the 2020 festival. Short films that have aired on streaming services or TV are considered eligible, but feature films that have aired on streaming services or TV are not considered eligible.

All submissions are required to be sent online as direct digital uploads or through online links. Physical submissions, such as Blu-Rays, are no longer accepted.

Sundance Categories

The Sundance categories include the following:

  • U.S. Narrative Feature Films, which include non-scripted and narrative fiction from within the U.S. that must be 50 minutes or longer
  • U.S. Documentary Feature Films, which include nonfiction films from within the U.S. that must be 50 minutes or longer
  • International Narrative Feature Films, which include non-scripted or narrative fiction from outside the U.S. that must be 50 minutes or longer
  • International Documentary Feature Films, which include nonfiction films from outside the U.S. that must be 50 minutes or longer
  • U.S. Short Films, which are fiction or non-fiction films from within the U.S. that are less than 50 minutes
  • International Short Films, which are fiction or non-fiction films from outside the U.S. that are less than 50 minutes
  • Episodic Content, which includes fiction or non-fiction multi-episode projects
  • New Frontier Exhibitions and Performances, which includes innovative projects, such as those featuring VR or AR

In past years, films that have premiered at Sundance include Sorry to Bother YouThe FarewellEighth Grade, and The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

Sundance Film Festival 2020

This year’s Sundance Film Festival from January 23rd through February 2nd at theaters in Park City, Sundance Mountain Resort, and Salt Lake City. A few of this year’s nominees include The 40-Year-Old VersionBlast BeatDinner in America, and The Evening Hour for U.S. Dramatic Competition. 

A Thousand CutsBe Water, and Coded Bias are among the nominees for U.S. Documentary Competition. Last year’s winners included Clemency in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, One Child Nation in the U.S. Documentary Competition, and Honeyland in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station (dir. by Ryan Coogler) was the Dramatic Jury and Audience Award winner in the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

If your career plans are in entertainment arts, request information from our admissions representatives to learn more about Academy of Art University’s art and design degree programs.

These programs are led by industry professionals that bring their real-world experience into the classroom and share their expertise with the students. Our very own Director of 3D Animation Catherine Tate, for example, was the VFX Supervisor for Sundance 2013 winner Fruitvale Station.

Apply now if you want to become part of our proud art school community.


Hero image courtesy of Danny Moloshok.