Sundance Expands Its Filmmaker Labs. Here's Why It's a Good Thing.

Sundance's tentacles are spreading.

Last year, the organization rolled out artist development pilot programs in Miami and Philadelphia aimed at teaching aspiring filmmakers the critical skills needed to navigate a complex industry. It was a smashing success, which made Sundance officers wonder, "Why should Miami and Philadelphia have all the fun?"

And so Sundance, thanks to a cool $1 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — the same folks who gave $200,000 to the Miami and Philly efforts — is now rolling out similar initiatives in six other cities: Akron, Charlotte, Detroit, Macon, San Jose, and St. Paul. (If these cities sound familiar, it's no coincidence. Knight's grantmaking operations are in eight "resident" communities, which include these six cities, plus Miami and Philadelphia.)

From our vantage point, Sundance's labs will expand upon the already impressive Miami and Philadelphia models. The labs, which last three years, target filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, and composers. Twelve participants will be named "Sundance | Knight Fellows," and will attend special screenings, panels, and professional development opportunities at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

We're bullish on this program because its planners understand the importance of teaching the "intangibles." After all, anyone can take a screenwriting workshop or teach themselves how to record a film score using state-of-the-art software. But being a filmmaker, in a weird way, requires a skill set that can be best compared to that of a politician. (Apologies to filmmakers everywhere.)

But hear us out for a second. Filmmakers need to network, raise money, travel, and even dole out the occasional favor. And "early stage" filmmakers can't teach themselves these skills without real experience and guidance from seasoned professionals.

Sundance understands this, so participants will integrate into their local communities by working with alumni on programming partnerships. Labs will also place alumni with participants to provide mentoring and other intangible advice. For example, at an upcoming "Artists Services" workshop in Miami, industry experts will lead discussions on "latest technology, tools and tactics in creative financing, digital distribution, guerilla marketing and independent theatrical distribution."

One last thing. Sundance has always positioned itself as an alternative to the Holllywood machine. According to Knight VP of the Arts Dennis Scholl, by laying the groundwork for more robust filmmaking operations in eight Knight-related communities, it's making it easier for aspiring filmmakers to "tell unique and compelling stories about their cities that resound with audiences around the globe."