What's So Special About Sundance's Short Film Challenge?

In today's installment of arts funding synergies, we present the case study of the Gates Foundation and the Sundance Institute.

The Gates Foundation, as we all know, focuses on the world's most challenging problems — hunger, health, etc. — yet they aren't considered a major arts funder. In fact, a recent piece in ArtNet, for example, asked "Are Mega-Philanthropists Like Bill Gets Neglecting the Arts?" It's a somewhat myopic question. Sure, perhaps Gates could give more to the arts, but his foundation more than makes up for it in other areas. What's more, we can all agree that by the time you finish reading this sentence, some mega-philanthropist  somewhere just cut a check giving a boatload of money to an arts-related cause.

Furthermore, when mega-philanthropists like Gates do support the arts, sometimes they do so from outside the limelight. Take Sundance's Short Film Challenge. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Sundance Institute selected five films out of 1,387 that best "encouraged discussion about such global problems as hunger and poverty." Here's where that synergy stuff comes into play. Much like, say, the Sloan Foundation's efforts to fund films that bring science into the cinematic mainstream, Gates will happily fund filmmaking as long as it deals with topics near and dear to the foundation's heart. And why not? It's not my money.

The winning short films and their directors were Man in the Maze by Phil Buccellato and Jesse Ash (United States), Dropping In by Willem Van Den Heever (South Africa), Isabelle's Garden by Jeffrey Palmer (United States), 175 Grams by Bharat Mirle (India) and A Will of Iron by Seyi Fabunmi and Mobolaji Adeolu (Nigeria). Each filmmaker or film team received a $10,000 grant and was invited to attend a screening of their film at Sundance.

But the Gates Foundation and Sundance determined that there's more to life than merely attending an in-person screening. In an effort to further boost each film's exposure, the films all became available on selected digital platforms on February 3. And we're not talking just YouTube or Vimeo here, we're looking at digital channels whose viewers will be naturally attuned to the films' subject matter.

For example, Palmer's Isabelle's Garden, "an uplifting story of a community coming together in reciprocity, through the hopes and dreams of a young Choctaw girl," will appear on Indian Country Today Media Network. Mirle’s 175 Grams, which looks at the rise of ultimate frisbee in India, will appear on Fast Company, a tech-y outlet that attracts Indian-American readers.

It's a deceptively simple case of pushing a film toward a specific demographic group to boost viewership and awareness around important issues. We wish more foundations would do it.

Which got me thinking. If this is what ArtNews means by mega-philanthropists "neglecting" the arts, then I'd love to see what would happen if they actually started, you know, paying attention.