Attending his first Sundance Film Festival in 2019, film critic Rendy Jones said, was “overwhelming at first,” but “it was amazing.”
“I met so many different people from different fields — industry and filmmakers,” Jones said, adding that he saw movies in Park City that “have been the highlights of the year.”
Jones, who runs the movie website Rendy Reviews, couldn’t have made the trip from Brooklyn to Utah without the Sundance Institute’s inaugural Press Inclusion Initiative. The program gives travel stipends to critics, freelancers and journalists from underrepresented communities — women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities. Jones, 21, qualified on two counts: He’s black and nonbinary.
This year, the initiative is dealing with the growing pains of its success. In late December, 51 journalists learned they had received stipends, but a bigger number of applicants — 317 — meant more people missed the cut.
The initiative aims to balance the diversity of the movie press, which is overwhelmingly white and male. According to a 2018 study by the University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, white males made up 65.6% of the critics reviewing the top 300 films from 2015 to 2017.
Of the 317 applicants for Sundance’s stipends, according to the institute, 70% were women, 69% were people of color, and 26% were both. Also, 31% were LGBTQ+, and 14% were people with a disability.
Among the 51 who were approved for stipends, 61% are women, 84% are people of color, and 51% are both. Also, 49% are LGBTQ+, and 25% have a disability. (Sundance did not disclose how much writers received with their stipends.)
Jones didn’t even get to apply. Without the invitation email Sundance sent out for 2019 applicants, Jones only heard about this year’s process “through a friend” in the middle of a busy Thanksgiving season. He missed the deadline by one day.
“I panicked for a bit,” Jones said. Then he got busy. He set up a GoFundMe account to raise travel money from his fans. Within five days, Jones received donations of $2,050, hitting his goal of $2,000.
“The money went to the flight [to Salt Lake City], and the Ubers up and down the mountain, which is really expensive,” Jones said, adding a friend is putting him up in Salt Lake City for the festival’s duration.
Sharronda Williams, the Atlanta-based creator of the movie site Pay or Wait, already had booked a non-refundable hotel room when she got word that she was rejected for the stipend. Williams, who declined to comment to The Salt Lake Tribune, also went the GoFundMe route, with a goal of $3,775 to cover her flight and the room (which she’s sharing with two other freelancers). As of Tuesday, Williams had raised $4,884, well above her goal.
Karim Ahmad, Sundance’s director of outreach and inclusion, and Spencer Alcorn, director of media relations, posted on Sundance’s blog Friday that the institute is looking at ways to improve the program for 2021. One idea is to move the application process earlier in the year, so those who are rejected have more time to find alternative funding before the festival.
A non-diverse press corps, Ahmad and Alcorn wrote, “can have a chilling effect on rich discourse and collective dialogue, and it can ultimately underserve the artists we showcase at the Sundance Film Festival, by limiting the critical voices that discuss their work.” Such limits, they said, “can directly affect how audiences meet that work.”
Sundance’s efforts to diversity the press corps is starting to work. At the 2019 festival, 63% of the press corps were not straight, cisgender, able-bodied white men, the institute said.
The applicants were vetted for strength of submission, past work and coverage plans for the 2020 festival. The three-person panel that reviewed the applications was comprised of Chaz Ebert, CEO and publisher of RogerEbert.com and widow of famed critic Roger Ebert; Kate Hagen, director of community for The Black List, a nonprofit that supports screenwriters; and Nic Novicki, founder of the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, an annual contest that fosters stories about people with disabilities.
The 2020 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 2 in Park City, and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort.