The Sundance Creative Producing Lab & Summit and The Power of Mentorship

Just two short weeks ago, I found myself in Park City, UT; an extremely fortunate and grateful fellow attending the Sundance Creative Producing Lab & Summit. Sundance is supporting a film I’m producing called STREET FIGHTING MAN ( and what I’ve found in this experience is that, in their ardent championship of independent film, the Sundance Institute provides an incredible amount of guidance to all the projects they fund.

This summer, in addition to receiving a grant from the Sundance Doc Fund, STREET FIGHTING MAN director Andrew James and editor Jason Tippet attended the Story & Edit Lab. That Lab was focused exclusively on the form, structure, and evolving narrative of the story. (Special shout-out to our other producer Katie Tibaldi who is in the field in Detroit with Andrew right now as I type, gathering the last footage we need to finish the film; much of it we determined we needed at the Lab!). The role of a Story Lab seems quite clear. But what does one learn at a “Creative Producing Lab”? I had my own expectations and lucky for me they were exceeded at every turn.

The Creative Producing Lab was an intensive 5-day series of workshops, meetings, and what I can only call “industry demystifications” focused on the art of producing a successful independent film. On the documentary side of the mountain, there were 7 fellows representing 5 films, a small cadre of mentors and the peerless Sundance staff lead by the indefatigable and inspirational Cara Mertes overseeing her last lab before shoving off to run the Just Films Initiative at the Ford Foundation. Through intimate and honest (sometimes painfully so) conversations with mentors and staff, we fellows strengthened our core knowledge about the multiple skill sets required of producers. To name just a few: financing, messaging, grant writing, festival strategy, contracts, budgets, distribution, publicity, team building, people managing, outreach dreaming, pitching and, of course, at the very core of it all – the instincts to know what makes a story work best.

In addition to understanding the demands of our chosen profession more vividly, we also had the benefit of project-specific feedback through sessions like a rough cut screening of your work in progress. For me, it was the first time I had shared footage from the film with anyone outside of our own team – I felt weirdly exposed, but it was a fantastic opportunity to talk through the challenges that lie ahead for us in completing the project with a group of experienced professionals who only want to see us succeed. There were also one-on-one meetings arranged with mentors, where each fellow received direct feedback on strategies to improve and gain traction for the project.

The Summit was a very different, but equally valuable experience. A departure from the intimate tone of the lab, the Summit still maintained a “summer camp” feeling of camaraderie. The Summit brought a total of 42 projects, both narrative and documentary, to discuss the state of the field, strengthen their producing chops, and pitch their films to industry leaders. These were meetings you would need a major market to get otherwise, creating great exposure for this group of films already blessed by the Sundance seal of approval.

But apart from all of the skills-building and networking, a crucial piece to this weekend was an examination of the role a producer plays on a project, a celebration of the creativity required of producers, and a call to seed the field with more able talent.

One plenary session, in particular, called on all of us – industry leaders, fellows, and Summit attendees, to name the one word we most associate with producing and why. Here are some thoughts from that group sharing (this was not around a campfire, but it could have been) that resonated with me:

  • CONNECT – Producers fill the tent. They bring creative teams, business interests and eager audiences together. They make sure all the skills, knowledge and tools necessary for a successful project are assembled in service of the director’s vision.
  • FAIL – Don’t be afraid to fail! Every failure you experience is another arrow in your quiver, and could be crucial to the success of your next film.
  • DO – When in doubt, act. There are countless moments of fear, anxiety, and stress in the creation of a film. Producers motivate and move forward. Inaction is their enemy. Gather the intelligence, trust your gut, and jump!
  • INNOVATE – The film industry is changing faster than we can easily assess it. This is a time to try new things. The opportunities for getting your film in front of new audiences have never been more plentiful. Forge your own path.
  • IMPROVISE – You won’t always have the answers, so be sure to trust your instincts. Every new challenge is a creative opportunity for problem-solving.
  • INSPIRE – Your team doesn’t just rely on you as a task-master and traction-maker, sometimes they need a cheerleader. These projects can often take a long time and encounter massive roadblocks along the way. A producer needs to keep the team together, protect the creative space, and help the team achieve their best potential.
  • MAKE IT RAIN (okay, not one word) – The producer is often the engine that makes a production go. The rain could be money, talent, or connections, but rain it must!

This is just a small snapshot from that one unforgettable week in the Wasatch Mountains. One of the most powerful takeaways for me was feeling the true power of effective mentorship. I know that I have taken it to heart and hope to provide that same level of open, caring guidance to others along the way. In that spirit, thank you to the generous mentors: Julie Goldman (producer), Bonni Cohen (filmmaker), Josh Braun (sales agent), and David Magdael (publicist). Your gifts continue to give!

Thank you to my fearless peers: Rachel Learns and Robin Blotnick (The Hand That Feeds –, Hillevi Loven and Chris Talbot (Radical Love –, Chai Vasarhelyi (An African Spring –, and Carola Fuentes (Chicago Boys – I already miss you and will be cheering you on!

Thank you to the Sundance Institute and its incredible staff from Executive Director Keri Putnam to all the drivers and chefs.

And finally, thank you to the Sundance Doc Fund staff – Cara Mertes, Rhadi Taylor, Kristin Feeley, Richard Perez, Bruni Burres, Wendy Levy, Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs, Jean Shin, Velissa Robinson and John Cardellino – you have changed our film and changed my life, and I am eternally grateful.

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