or the longest time, “Sundance” was only ever a word I had heard that had something to do with a film festival. That was all I knew. My real introduction to the Sundance Institute was when I went to an industry event for Pacific people in 2018 where staff from the Indigenous Programme were attending in support. Their unit coordinates a variety of initiatives, labs and fellowships for indigenous filmmakers all around the world. Later that year, I ran a series of talks called Diverse Discourse for Australians In Film where I brought in the Indigenous Programme’s Director, Bird Runningwater, to speak. It was only through him and his staff that I got a better understanding of Sundance’s foundation and its mission.
The story goes that Robert Redford wanted a creative space that would entice Hollywood stars, so he bought a picturesque area of land in the mountains of Utah from the Stewart family who had acquired it under the Homestead Act in the mid-1800s. He renamed it “Sundance” after his role in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and invited some colleagues over to discuss independent filmmaking. This eventually led to the inauguration of the Sundance Institute.
From there sprung arguably its most high profile programme of all, the Sundance Film Festival: “the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives.” Considering the festival’s history, juxtaposed with my own experience and research, this description glosses over a serious disconnect from reality.
While press junkets don’t really happen at the festival, I was always on the lookout for opportunities to attend. Nothing had come up until I came across the announcement that they were actively seeking a more diverse press core through the Press Inclusion Initiative (PII), a program only in its second year. Even though you can see “new voices and fresh perspectives” rhetoric sprinkled throughout the festival, it is clear that this hasn’t really been an integral part of the community or taken up as a necessary investment in the original mission.
The lack of diversity in the professional media space is something I have been well aware of since I got into the game five years ago. I have even brought it up in interviews. So I was excited when I applied and was granted a stipend with top tier credentials to check out whatever movies I wanted and write independently about them. At the time, I was eager to find out exactly what the PII was doing to fill the gap, and importantly, how successful it was in carrying out this task.
Given it’s only in its second year, I figured it would be helpful to sit down with Karim Ahamad — a first generation Pakistani development executive, producer, and screenwriter who has been Sundance’s Director, Outreach and Inclusion for almost three years. We got to dive into the history of the Press Inclusion Initiative, what it’s about, and where it plans to go from here. At the outset, he offered, “We weren’t asking for demographic information prior to 2019, but we estimated it was about 85% white, 15% People of Color.”
It wasn’t until The Black List’s Franklin Leonard said to him in a conversation that he would like to see a more diverse press core that it came up on his radar. This surprised me because as a person of colour myself, I couldn’t help but feel our absence in every single screening I went to. Going back to Sundance Film Festival being “the ultimate gathering of original storytellers and audiences seeking new voices and fresh perspectives,” this is a problem that should’ve been noticed and addressed far earlier than 2019.
Leonard was the impetus for the initiative, detailing how “cultural critics” are gatekeepers for films from historically marginalized artists; they construct the pathways for films to find audiences because they are the arbiters for the sales process and mediators for potential audiences to show up in theatres or engage on alternative media platforms. While the PII seeks to increase the presence of critics with disabilities, LGBT critics and women, the largest area to improve was identified as increasing critics of colour.
When professional media presence doesn’t reflect the breadth of the artistry represented, I think the most damaging consequences go beyond bums in seats. The greatest harm lies in how the “new voices and fresh perspectives” don’t just get lost in translation — they get neglected altogether; and when they do receive attention, they are quite often misunderstood or treated without attention to inherent cultural, social, and political nuance. Public discourse remains very much at the mercy of dominant white perspectives, because those voices have been granted the most access and leverage. As they take the lead on what becomes the most widespread narratives, their ignorances and prejudices go relatively unchecked. This is how you come to have creative gems ignored and problematic trash exalted.
With the help of Leonard and Stacy Smith from USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Karim and Spencer Alcorn (Sundance’s Director of Media Relations) sat down and assessed that the three major barriers for BIPOC media attending were:
1. Access. Being a freelance/independent journalist from a smaller outlet made it harder to apply for credentials successfully. The PII released top tier credentials to grantees to combat this.
2. Financial resources. Not having the backing of a major outlet to pay for accommodation and flights to the festival which is quite expensive when you’re looking to stay at Park City during its peak season. The PII addressed this by awarding 51 travel stipends in both 2019 and 2020, funded by corporate sponsors.
3. Integration. Feeling a part of the community - knowing where to go, who to talk to, what to expect and how to best engage with publicists. An online webinar was held prior to the festival for PII grantees to ask questions and then a reception was also held on the first day of the festival for grantees to meet each other and network with invitees from major outlets. There are talks of incorporating a mentoring component where journalists from major outlets could partner with grantees to help in preparation.
While I feel like the initiative is a step in the right direction, I pointed out a couple of oversights and missed opportunities. The first being that for as many journalists of colour that get added in each year of grantees, nothing is being done to amplify our voices. If you are going to invite journalists of colour with the intention of changing the homogenous discourse of media at the festival, especially journalists of colour from smaller outlets, steps need to be taken to help expand our reach. There needs to be a push in the publicity/publishing and distribution of our content in order to have a real impact. No such measures are currently in place.
Another significant issue was based on my experiences with publicists. Color Bloq’s focus is Queer and Trans People of Color, it’s very specific and there’s very specific talent that I wanted to interview. I received so much push back from publicists who are generally white and at best, they didn’t understand the importance of connecting the limited number of QTPOC press with the very few QTPOC talent at the festival (and at worst, they just do not care). I would often enlist the help of Spencer Alcorn, Sundance’s Director of Media Relations, where I would copy him into my emails after not hearing back from people. He was great at giving an extra push, but it was only helpful to a certain extent.
While I know it is the job of a publicist to protect talent and do whatever gets them the most exposure for their money, I think it’s worth noting that when I met the very QTPOC talent I sought to interview in-person at panels or events, they were more than willing to meet up for a quick chat. It was clear to me that publicists were largely unaware of the PII and that it hasn’t been integrated into the operations of the festival in a way that leveraged visibility and inclusivity for grantees. Until that happens, publicists will remain yet another hurdle in doing the work.
The PII had more of a marketing push for this year’s intake so the number of applicants made a massive jump from 60 applicants in its first year to over 300 last year. With over 1,300 accredited journalists attending in 2020, raising the issues I did with Karim around access to talent and expanding the reach for voices that belong to marginalised groups, I think there are clear strategic steps that can be taken to increase inclusivity.
Institute Minimum Quotas
There is a clear lack of representation at the major outlet level and very little is being done to elevate BIPOC voices to match their reach. A quota could help address that. Establishing a quota amongst major outlets that send multiple journalists is a sure way of increasing the reach of cultural critics belonging to underrepresented groups that Sundance has identified, namely BIPOC as cited by Karim. With the larger trade papers (e.g. Daily Variety, The Hollywood Reporter) and metropolitan dailies (e.g. USA Today, NY Times) sending up to as many as 8 reporters to cover the course of the festival, not necessarily all at one time, the quota could be that 50% of all representatives they send must be BIPOC and 50% women. If they are having trouble finding journalists that match the criteria, they don’t have to look any further than the pool of PII grantees. A quota is a simple solution I’m sure someone before me has thought of, yet one doesn’t exist.
Publicists are a major barrier to access. As Karim mentioned, incorporating a mentoring component into the initiative and being able to meet with a mentor from a major outlet before the festival could be a huge help in preparing for it. They could also act as a resource in tackling issues with publicists who aren’t as helpful when it comes to independent journalists and smaller outlets. Most importantly, fostering a relationship here could have a long lasting impact well after the festival with the potential for writing opportunities, especially if a quota is in place. This could serve to be an incredible talent pipeline.