Business of Art | The Sundance Institute: Programs for Film, Film Music, Theatre, New Media, and Episodic Storytelling

Business of Art | The Sundance Institute: Programs for Film, Film Music, Theatre, New Media, and Episodic Storytelling

Learn about the wide range of Sundance Institute opportunities for creative makers and storytellers.

When you hear the word ‘Sundance,’ perhaps a prestigious film festival, Robert Redford, and charming, indie films like Little Miss Sunshine come to mind. Yet, Sundance is much more than that! A nonprofit organization dedicated to championing independent and unique voices, the Sundance Institute supports burgeoning and underrepresented storytellers in their creative practices and helps introduce their work to new audiences. Rather than exclusivity, the spirit of Sundance supports freedom of expression and opportunities for experimentation, invention, and exploration.

In September of 2017, Christopher Hibma, Producing Director of the Sundance Institute Theatre Program and Kristin Feeley, Associate Director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program came to NYFA to share an overview of Sundance Institute’s signature programs and laboratories, and to give artists the opportunity to ask questions directly. Hibma and Feeley readily dispelled the myth that Sundance is primarily a film festival and geared towards the established filmmaker. They offered insights into Sundance Institute’s open application processes and commitment towards greater accessibility,  as well as their conviction that the greatest knowledge stems from peer-to-peer support. In the near future, a handful of programs that are currently ‘invitation-only’ will open their applications to all creative makers in the field.

Keep reading to learn more about the Theatre, Documentary, and Creative Producing programs offered by Sundance Institute which currently include an open application process. Additionally, browse through Sundance Institute’s website here to learn more about other support programs, including:

  • Feature Film: provides in-depth and year-round support to a next generation of filmmakers, from development through distribution;
  • Film Music: connects composers and directors, fostering collaboration;
  • New Frontier: identifies and fosters independent artists working at the convergence of film, art, media, live performance, music and technology;
  • Native American and Indigenous Film: supports Native American filmmakers;
  • Creative Distribution Initiative: empowers filmmakers navigating the changing business of independent film;
  • Episodic Storytelling: offers support designed to foster a next generation of creators developing and producing episodic content;
  • Ignite: identifies and supports new voices and talent from the next generation of filmmakers between the ages of 18-25;
  • Catalyst: connects culturally-engaged film investors and funders with film projects and with the Sundance community;
  • Diverse Storytellers: encompasses Sundance Institute’s efforts to reach into new communities of storytellers and audiences;
  • Film Festival: an annual festival that showcases the work of independent storytellers

Theatre Program

The Sundance Institute’s Theatre Program has evolved over the years since its inception in 1981. Driven to provide nurturing peer-to-peer mentorships, the Theatre Lab brings together a cohort of artists to “engage the complex space between idea and performance” where reflection and experimentation are central to time spent in retreat. For three weeks, artists are encouraged to re-write and re-imagine their material, and at the end of the session, present their works in progress and participate in a roundtable discussion with their peers.

The Theatre Program is now international with retreats located in the Middle East and North Africa. Artists ranging from playwrights, directors, composers, ensembles, performance artists, and choreographers are encouraged to apply.

With the goal of preserving uninhibited creative exploration, all related expenses are covered, including an artist stipend, meals, travel, accommodation, and support personnel.

Opportunity: 2018 Theatre Lab in Marrakech, Morocco

Application: Apply here.
Deadline: November 1, 2017
Program Dates: May 6 – May 27, 2018
Eligibility: Theatre artists including playwrights, directors, composers, ensembles, performance artists, and choreographers from the United States and from the Middle East & North Africa are encouraged to apply.

For questions or inquiries, please email [email protected].


Documentary Film Program

Established in 2002, the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program supports non-fiction feature documentary films with global and cultural relevance. The program is designed to support films at various stages in their creation—development, production, or post-production—and includes a granting fund to assist artists financially and provide creative freedom.

Opportunity: Documentary Fund Program

The Documentary Fund Program is an open application and provides grants for development, production, and post-production stages of a film, as well as support for audience and community engagement initiatives. 50% of the funding is generally allocated to filmmakers working in North America, and 50% to filmmakers working internationally.

In order to encourage filmmakers to submit their best work, applications are accepted on a rolling basis.

Application: Apply Here.
Deadline: Rolling
Eligibility: U.S. and International filmmakers working on feature-length nonfiction projects, maximum two submission attempts per project
Development Grant Amount: Up to $15,000
Production & Post-Production Grant Amount: $20,000 – $40,000
Audience Engagement Grant Amount: Up to $20,000

For questions or inquiries, please contact [email protected].

Theatre and Documentary Film Programs: Frequently Asked Questions

During the event at NYFA, Hibma and Feeley clarified many common questions about the Theatre and Documentary Film Programs, such as the below:

  • I am not sure whether my film is currently in the development or production stage – how do I know what to apply for? If you are filming but still feel like you are discovering your story, consider applying for the Development Grant. Once you are ready, you can, then, also re-apply for a Production Grant. Production Grants are directed towards those filmmakers who have established a sense of their characters, and the story is, in a sense, grounded and is moving forward.
  • If I am applying for a Development Grant, do I need to provide a visual sample, as well as written sample? It is not required. However, if you are a first-time filmmaker, a visual sample is imperative, whether it is a teaser or test footage. If you are applying for a character-driven film, it is important that the character manifests on the screen in some way.
  • If I enter the program with my film in documentary form, does it need to stay that way? No, a few of the films that have entered the program as a documentary have eventually transformed into a fiction film. The Sundance Institute is dedicated to providing support for an artist’s vision – it is about the unfettered, creative process.
  • What does the panel look for? Usually, funds are split between supporting first-time filmmakers and mid-career artists. It is important to convey why you are the best person to tell the story, and why it is relevant now. Clearly articulate your vision, your necessities, support, and what the project means to you as a filmmaker now. The panel wants to understand the artist first. You don’t have to have all of the answers at the time of applying, but there needs to be a clearly articulated vision and even perhaps, a level of vulnerability, showing that the Sundance Institute can be supportive.
  • What should my distribution and outreach plan be like in order to qualify for an Audience Engagement Grant? As long as you are reaching an audience broadly to get the film seen or have a specific group in mind, Sundance Institute is interested in supporting that. If you have a specific plan to create social or cultural impact, you can certainly come to the Fund.

Creative Producing Initiative

Producers for feature and nonfiction films play an integral role in the creation process. The Sundance Institute understands the importance of collaboration and the need to delineate specific responsibilities to carry out a project. Just last year, Sundance Institute established the Creative Producing Initiative, including the Feature Film Creative Producing Lab and Fellowship and the Documentary Creative Producing Lab and Fellowship, which are open to all. The programs include the Creative Producing Lab, Creative Producing Summit, and attendance to the Sundance Film Festival, along with year-round mentorship from one industry mentor. Feature Film Creative Producing Fellows also receive a grant of $10,000 per participating project; $5,000 for a living stipend, and $5,000 for pre-production costs.

The Labs and Fellowships take place at Sundance Resort at Park City, Utah.

Opportunity: Feature Films Creative Producing Lab & Fellowship

Program Dates:

  • Lab: July 30 – August 2, 2018
  • Summit: August 3 – 5, 2018
  • Festival: January 17 – January 27, 2018

Application Deadline: applications will open on October 30, 2017 and close on February 6, 2018.

Opportunity: Documentary Films Creative Producing Lab & Fellowship

The next submission period will be announced shortly.

Would you like to learn more about opportunities for filmmakers? Join NYFA in Brooklyn, NY on November 9, 2017 for a presentation by the Tribeca Film Institute for interactive media makers. Learn more about the event here, and register here.

Sundance Institute was founded in 1981 by Robert Redford to foster independence and provide a safe harbor for risk-taking new voices. In the organization’s inaugural year, 15 emerging filmmakers were invited to Sundance Resort in the mountains of Utah to develop their original independent projects with mentorship from leading writers, directors, and actors. Since then, it has evolved as an internationally-recognized nonprofit organization that discovers and supports independent film and theatre artists from the U.S. and around the world, and introduces audiences to their new work.

– Priscilla Son, Program Assistant, Fiscal Sponsorship & Finance

This event was co-presented by NYFA Learning, which offers professional development for artists and arts administrators, and by NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship. NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship’s next quarterly no-fee application deadline is December 31.

Sign up for NYFA’s free bi-weekly newsletter to receive updates on future programs, and check out NYFA’s Business of Art Directory to read more articles on this topic and others.

Images, from top: Panoply Performance Laboratory, courtesy Esther Neff (Sponsored Project); Steve Brand, Praying with my Legs, photo by Lee Brand (Sponsored Project)

Amy Aronoff
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