Gail Silva's Sundance Primer

Susan Gerhard January 14, 2008

As filmmakers, fans, and skiers get zipped up to head off to Parka City for the annual Sundance Film Festival this week, felt it appropriate to check in with one of the more familiar faces en route to the festival, Gail Silva. For decades, a prime force at the Film Arts Foundation, Silva’s been behind the curtain for years, advising filmmakers at all stages of Sundance dreaming. Here are a few of her thoughts on getting in, being in, and surviving the annual trip that is Sundance. For many many years, you were the face of the Film Arts Foundation. What are you doing now? _

Gail Silva: For the last two years I have been doing much of the same type of work I had done for the previous 26 years. Currently I am working for both small non profit arts organizations and individual visual artists and filmmakers. For the organizations, the focus has been on financial management, planning, visibility and marketing, board development, executive director searches, fundraising, and donor development.

For individuals, especially those doing film projects, the work is mainly concept development, ‘finding the money,’ creating successful proposals, looking at ‘cuts,’ and then, how to reach audiences when it is complete. Not too much different from the past, I’d say. I should add that I have little desire to be a producer — I much prefer advising, and also hooking folks up with the many talented people who can join their team. I guess I’m a teacher and a cheerleader! Additional work includes screening for the Sundance World Docs competition and a couple other festivals, attending a small number of festivals to see films, coach clients who have films screening, speaking on panels and the like. Who are some of the filmmakers you’ve advised? _

Silva: Oh goodness, that’s a big question. A sample would include Lourdes Portillo, Arthur Dong, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Zach Niles and Banker White of ‘The Refugee Allstars,’ Jay Rosenblatt, Sam Green, The Belic Brothers, Rick Tejada Flores and Laurie Coyle, George Csicsery, Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto, Allie Light and Irving Saraf and tons of others. Now that I am no longer at Film Arts, I get calls from people in many parts of the country. What’s the best piece of advice you can give a filmmaker trying to get into Sundance? _

Silva: 1. Submit only when, and if, you have a fine cut or locked picture. The competition is so great that sending a raggedy work-in-progress is pointless; they keep a list of all films submitted and you want to be remembered as giving it a decent shot with a near-completed work. 2. Be realistic: Have you made a Sundance-type film? and then hedge your bets and enter Slamdance as well. 3. Do not harass the programmers with endless emails and phone calls. 4. Have a plan for the next six months of other festivals with upcoming deadlines. What’s the best piece of advice you can give a filmmaker GOING to Sundance? _

Silva: Stay cool around the hype and don’t spend tons of money on publicists, producers’ reps and lawyers. Don’t stay up late drinking in that altitude and don’t worry that you didn’t get invited to the party where all the execs from “Blah Blah” were in attendance. Smile, remain positive, enjoy yourself and get to know all the other filmmakers in the fest as perhaps they’ll invite you to sleep on the their sofa the next time you’re in NYC. Be ready to talk about your next film idea in case the right person asks. What’ the best piece of advice you can give to a filmmaker AFTER Sundance? _

Silva: Wait out the offers (distributors, sales reps and the like) and see ‘who’ is offering ‘what.’ Now is when you may need the lawyer. Or conversely, the phone doesn’t ring, and you need to move on to the next festival or opportunity. How does Sundance’s importance to the trajectory of a film’s life now, in the YouTube age, compare to its importance, say, five or 10 years ago? _

Silva: I’m of two minds on this: Sure, it is great to be selected for Sundance, yet it doesn’t necessarily spell success as we reflect on the lousy box office, especially for docs, in the last year. So far, the easy possibilities of the Internet provide scarce financial return. Currently digital delivery is in its infancy — all kinds of possibilities flying around, beta-style. When the rush is over, what will be the standard? And will the filmmaker get a fair share?

On the other hand, the boost of Sundance could very well make it easier to get the next project financed. You were probably involved with Sundance before it was ‘Sundance.’ That is, before Robert Redford became involved. Memories? _

Silva: The first time I attended it was called the U.S. Film Festival — probably ’81, ’82. It was a quiet, friendly place high in the mountains where the audience and filmmakers hung out and just talked movies all day and night. Quite a blissful experience. What’s been your favorite San Francisco-filmmaker-Sundance moment? _

Silva: Far too many to name. And this year few Bay Area films were selected, so I’ll concentrate on getting into the ‘wait lines’ as early as possible and just see as much as I can.