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Sean P. Means: Thanksgiving week for filmmakers means waiting for Sundance to call

Published November 29, 2013 5:47 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone — and while most people are spending this day sleeping off their tryptophan-and-football coma or elbowing fellow Black Friday shoppers for the last XBox One, one small group is marking the day quite differently.

For independent filmmakers — especially those who have submitted their work to the Sundance Film Festival — the week of Thanksgiving is also a time of decision.

This week, by tradition and the schedule, is when Sundance programmers finalize the slate for next January's festival. It's also when they get to make the happiest phone calls any filmmaker can hear: the call that confirms that a filmmaker's work will be playing at America's most important movie showcase.

If you are one of those filmmakers, the call is a valediction. It's a sign that somebody else — some rather important somebodies — thinks your movie, the thing that has cost you so much in sweat and lost sleep and maxed-out credit cards, might be worth showing to an audience.

In a moment, a filmmaker goes from being a starving artist, working in isolation, to being accepted as a member in the club. Visions of blockbuster deals and champagne dinners with Harvey Weinstein dance through his or her head.

When Salt Lake City filmmaker Jerusha Hess got that call this time last year, she told me a week later, "I started crying immediately."

The call was for her directing debut, "Austenland," which debuted at Sundance 2013. Hess remembered that Sundance's programming director Trevor Groth really liked the movie. "It was so flattering and lovely," she said. "I don't remember much, because my brain was spinning."

Hess and her husband, Jared, got a similar call around Thanksgiving 2003, when their first movie, "Napoleon Dynamite," made the cut. "The Hesses never get tired of getting that phone call from the Sundance programmers," Jerusha Hess said in late November 2012.

"It's a little different now, because we're not starving students," she said then. "At that point, there were like tears for weeks. We were like, 'We get to live!' "

But for every call the programmers make to a happy filmmaker, there are dozens who wait by the phone in vain. With some 4,500 feature films submitted, and approximately 110 to 120 films chosen, odds are that a filmmaker will be salting the Thanksgiving turkey with tears.

Filmmakers always know when it's happening, because film is a community — and in every community, people talk.

Most independent filmmakers have friends who are also filmmakers, or they know editors or cinematographers. When the calls go out, word gets around — and soon, a filmmaker realizes his or her phone is silent while other people are getting the calls.

Then, the filmmaker who didn't get into Sundance has to start making some calls. The first call is to Mom and Dad, for encouragement. The next call is to the investors, who were hoping to recoup with a big Sundance deal. More calls go out to the actors, who were eager to be discovered by some big-time producer. If the filmmaker has been smart, and hasn't been blabbing "Just you wait until I'm at the Sundance Film Festival!" to everyone in a 10-mile radius, the number of chastened phone calls can be reduced.

Then there's the call to the producer, to start planning the next move. That call is the most critical, because that's when the Plan B decisions start being made: Do we try for Tribeca in April? Re-edit and pin our hopes on Toronto in September? Cut a TV deal now? What about self-distribution?

Meanwhile, the lucky few who got the call from Sundance have to scramble, too. But the questions they must ask are happier ones: Whom should I hire as a publicist? How do I get the post-production done in time? What should I wear to my first Q-and-A? What's Robert Redford like in person?

There's one more Thanksgiving tradition, observed by the programmers themselves. They have been watching and debating movies for months, a process that culminates in those phone calls. Soon, the programmers have the job of telling the world about those movies — starting with Sundance's annual announcement of the slate in December. For the programmers, this four-day weekend is the last break they get until the end of January.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at http://www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.