Sundance and TIFF Press Inclusion Initiatives: Reflections from an Awardee
The Sundance Film Festival is the largest and, arguably, the most prestigious festival in the country. The job of the Sundance Institute is to foresee the future of the film industry. They often serve as an example for other festivals to navigate issues of diversity and sustainability. The 2020 festival was the second year of the Sundance Institute’s Press Inclusion Initiative, with the aim to “cultivate a more representative press corps at the Sundance Film Festival… by providing top-tier access to freelance critics from underrepresented communities.” Of the 317 applications, only 51 critics were selected for the program. I was one of the lucky 51.
The day that I received the Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative stipend, I also learned that I was awarded a Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellowship. It was Friday, December 20, 2019. Christmas came early! Through the initiative, the Sundance Institute provided Press Express credentials and a $2,500 grant to defray travel and lodging costs supported by Critical Minded, Netflix, Open Society Foundations and Rotten Tomatoes.
For filmmakers, artists and critics alike, acceptance into a Sundance Institute program can be a critical turning point in their career. But the Press Inclusion Initiative, a relatively new program, had its challenges. The application was only open for about a week and it closed on Friday, December 13, 2019. Applications were considered as they were received until the following Friday, with notifications sent out on a rolling basis. By December 20, applicants had been notified of their status, but no information about those selected were announced. That day was also when all critics were notified of their press credential status. Many critics that did not receive the Press Inclusion Initiative were notified that they had received press credentials. These two moving parts intersected into a storm of Tweets.
Some of the folks that applied to the Initiative had pre-booked lodging for the festival. Without funds from the initiative, critics such as Sharronda Williams of Pay or Wait were unable to cover those expenses. Others, such as Rendy Jones of Rendy Reviews, received the funds the first year but were denied for the second year of the initiative. Wilson Morales of Blackfilm.com was denied from the initiative and ARRAY swooped in to fund their attendance. Alex Heeney, editor-in-chief of Seventh Row, questioned, “Did the Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative....include ANYONE?”
On my end, I was at home getting ready for Christmas and New Year’s—and reading daily Tweets from upset critics. Twitter exploded because there was a caveat, when we were awarded the stipend, to keep the information confidential because the stipends are granted on a rolling basis “to avoid confusing applicants whose materials may have not yet been reviewed.” The official statement from Sundance regarding the initiative was released on December 27. Film critic Twitter was upset for a full week. As an awardee, I never received an email about the official statement. I learned about it through the angry Tweets I saw online and, a few days after, I posted about being accepted into the program, hoping that my post would help soothe the journalists online.
It was on December 27 that we learned that the application review panel consisted of Chaz Ebert (CEO & Publisher, RogerEbert.com), Nic Novicki (founder, Easterseals Disability Film Challenge) and Kate Hagen (Director of Community, The Black List). The pool of awardees consisted of 61% women, 84% people of color, 51% women of color, 49% LGBTQ+ people, and 25% people with a disability. The inaugural Press Inclusion Initiative in 2019 resulted in 63% of the press corp being individuals who were not “heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender white men.” All of this useful information wasn’t released until a week after official acceptances and rejections were sent out. As Nina Metz of the Chicago Tribune wrote on Twitter, “Diversity initiatives come with so much optimism, but it's worth following up to see how well these ideas work in practice.”
For me, the timeline between learning of my acceptance (December 20, 2019) and the festival dates (January 23 through February 2, 2020) complicated aspects of the Press Inclusion Initiative. Park City, Utah is notoriously expensive. While the $2,500 stipends allowed for flexibility, it also meant that we had to find our own housing. As a first-time Sundance attendee, I spent a full two weeks researching the festival, layout, transportation and housing. I was very lucky to find space at a reasonably priced hostel near Main Street, but I was also not provided much support to find housing. When I asked about it, I was directed to Sundance’s Lodging webpage. The cheapest hotel option would have cost the entire $2,500 stipend for lodging for the run of the festival. That stipend also needed to cover flights, shuttles, rideshares, meals and other expenses.
The timing of the award announcement and lack of publicity for awardees made it difficult to find writing gigs. During the month after being awarded the stipend, I had to balance making arrangements, pitching publications, the holidays and my work. Having only a month to plan the trip was not enough time. The aim of the initiative is to provide opportunities for film critics of underrepresented backgrounds. For me, I hoped that this program would allow me to gain access to national publications. The problem was that many of the national publications had already hired writers by the time I was awarded the stipend. It would have also been very helpful if the Press Inclusion award announcement had included the critics’ names, bios and contact info so that newsrooms could hire us directly. It would have been useful to have Sundance put the awardee's info and presence at the forefront of these national news organizations so that we could get hired.
In terms of resources for the awardees, Sundance coordinated a Pre-Festival Video Chat that was very helpful. Having never been to Sundance before, the information in the session prepared me for the climate, altitude and day-to-day of the festival. The first day of the festival, Sundance held a Day One Press Inclusion Reception for awardees. Coming into the space, I thought the event would be more about promoting the awardees and introductions, but it was more of a Q&A with the director of Zola, Janicza Bravo. The event was a bit of a missed opportunity. It could have been a time to have meaningful interactions between awardees and Sundance staff and representatives from news outlets. There was the opportunity to mingle but with no formal introductions of those supported by the initiative.
The lack of publicity for awardees of the Initiative made it difficult for some critics to gain access to filmmakers themselves. The writers of Color Bloq, a platform that focus on the stories of Queer & Trans People of Color, had trouble getting responses from publicists. Writer Kristian “Krit” Fanene Schmidt would often have to “enlist the help of Spencer Alcorn, Sundance’s Director of Media Relations, where I would copy him into my emails after not hearing back from people. He was great at giving an extra push, but it was only helpful to a certain extent.”
While I am truly thankful to have been a Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative Awardee, I felt there could have been more thoughtfulness in the execution. The timing of the award made it difficult to arrange travel, housing and writing gigs. There was little support for the actual awardees as none of the winners were ever publicly acknowledged.
For the 2021 festival, Sundance acknowledged that they would move up the Press Inclusion Initiative application timeline. However, in order to truly support underrepresented critics, we require more support than a stipend. We need a larger presence, access to bigger platforms, and publicity.
As other festivals institute their own initiatives, there needs to be more input from organizations that are at the forefront of changing the landscape of the film industry. Just as ARRAY supported Wilson Morales of Blackfilm.com, we need more organizations to advocate for critics. We can’t expect institutions with a history of systemic racism to properly understand or navigate the needs of underrepresented people. Diversity initiatives require hands-on care, compassion, and an equal leveling of the field.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival took place in a hybrid format from January 28 through February 3. The line-up included virtual programming on the Sundance platform and in-person Satellite Screens in theaters around the US. Despite this shift to a hybrid festival experience, the 2021 Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative still took place.
The application window for the 2021 Press Inclusion Initiative was a month, rather than a week. The notification date, December 18, allowed for more time to plan for the festival because it did not take place in Park City, Utah. The initiative also provided a $1,000 unrestricted stipend to support critics. According to the application, “Recipients are encouraged to deploy their stipends on anything they need to support and sustain focused work during this time.”
Spencer Alcorn, director of communications for the Sundance Institute, explained via email that, “This year, we were dealing with a smaller tranche of funding support, alongside a shortened digital festival with no significant travel/lodging costs, so we opted to trim the amount of the stipend and increase the number of stipend recipients. Additionally, we moved deadlines and funds transfer dates earlier. We were also able to work with festival sponsor Oculus to secure comped VR headsets alongside our financial support.”
On December 18, I received the exciting news that I was awarded the Press Inclusion Initiative for a second year. The initiative review panel included Tracy Nguyen-Chung (After Bruce / Brown Girls Doc Mafia), Day Al-Mohamed, (FWD-Doc) and Sankara Sauvignon (Blavity). With only 80 slots and 224 applications, the largest group of recipients consisted of Black women (27%), followed by Black men (13%). Based on my online research, none of this information was made public by the Sundance Film Festival.
The fact that the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was virtual alleviated many of the issues experienced the previous year during the Press Inclusion Initiative—mainly, transportation and housing. The virtual festival’s online platform allowed for accessibility with flexible film-viewing available around the world, as well as access to closed captioning on films. The Sundance Institute provided Press Inclusion Initiative awardees with complimentary Oculus Quest 2 All-in-One VR headsets so that we had access to the online New Frontier program. They also hosted a “Press Inclusion Initiative Orientation” prior to the festival and a “Press Inclusion Welcome” event during the festival to network with other awardees. The Press Inclusion Initiative, however, did not actively promote or provide mentorship resources for award winners.
Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Media Inclusion Initiative
This past year, I also took part in the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Media Inclusion Initiative. Much like the Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative, the TIFF Inclusion Initiative aims to expand representation in the ranks of the press corp. The TIFF initiative provided both promotions and workshops for awardees. TIFF offered awardees “priority placement in the Media Inclusion Directory, which will be shared with film publicists.” TIFF promoted their awardees through a live Twitter interview. They also scheduled workshops with experienced journalists and PR professionals. Through the TIFF program, I gained a deeper insight into the field, gained some promotion of my work and was able to expand my network. The TIFF program, however, did not offer any financial support to film critics.
Most importantly, what I learned from the TIFF program was that most of the journalists taking part in these programs are receiving none or very little compensation for their work. During a workshop with a Toronto-based film critic, the speaker asked people to raise their hands if they were covering the festival unpaid. The majority of the Media Inclusion Initiative awardees raised their hands. Many film critics from historically excluded backgrounds do not make money from their reporting. In fact, many balance multiple jobs in order to take part in these festivals. Speaking with film critics that took part in the TIFF and Sundance press initiatives, I learned that many critics, including myself, had to schedule film screenings after-hours while navigating familial duties and full-time/part-time work.
The bottom line is that the support of these inclusion programs were vital to an underrepresented film critic’s ability to report on films. Many of the participants in the inclusion programs are focused on writing about films that tell historically excluded stories. Much like the filmmakers that require support to get their films on the big screens, film critics require that same level of support to cover the films that would otherwise go under-reported.
While I am thankful for the continued support, the Sundance Press Inclusion Initiative has proven to be a vital, albeit flawed, program for underrepresented film critics to cover the Sundance Film Festival. However, once a critic has been awarded the initiative, will there be any other form of continued support? In order to truly support underrepresented artists and writers, we need resources for longer periods of time because our access to generational wealth (in the form of connection, knowledge, etc) are limited due to years of colonialism.
In an email, Alcorn further described how the Press Inclusion Initiative will evolve: “We've solicited feedback from the stipend recipients, as always, on the experience and what kinds of support would make the most meaningful difference to their ability to cover [the festival], and we'll take that into account as we plan for 2022. There are select year-round paid opportunities for Press Inclusion Initiative participants to write pieces on the Sundance.org website—here, for example, is Manuel Betancourt interviewing Loira Limbal.”
The 2021 Press Inclusion Initiative application stated, “Preference will be given to new applicants who have not participated in the Press Inclusion Initiative before. Returning recipients and candidates are welcome and encouraged to apply; please detail any unique plans you have for your coverage this year.” The criteria for the TIFF Media Inclusion Initiative, as stated in the application, awards film critics who have “never been accredited at the Toronto International Film Festival.” The question arises, as an underrepresented film critic: Will I, or any of my colleagues, be able to cover these film festivals as freelancers that may not be supported by these initiatives again?
Kristal Sotomayor is a bilingual Latinx freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker, and festival programmer based in Philadelphia. They serve as Programming Director for the Philadelphia Latino Film Festival and Co-Founder of ¡Presente! Media Collective. Kristal has written for ITVS, WHYY, AL DÍA, and Autostraddle. They are a 2020 Documentary Magazine Editorial Fellow.