Sundance Film Festival Selections 2019: What are the Odds for Documentaries?

Sundance Film Festival award lags only behind an Oscar nomination as a measure of success for documentarians.

But what are the odds that a U.S. or international documentary will earn a slot on the program?

Submissions

  • 2,649 Documentary Features were submitted to the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, which opens on January 24:
    • 767 were from the U.S.
    • 1,882 were international submissions.

Selections

  • Sundance selected 49 feature documentaries.
    • The success rate is 1.8%
    • That’s down from 2.9% in 2018.

Origin

  • US: 31 selections / 4.0% acceptance rate.
  • International: 18 selections / 1.0% success rate.

Prior Funding by Sundance 

16 of the 49 selections (33%) had received prior funding from the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program:

U.S. Documentary Competition
Midnight Family
Where’s My Roy Cohn?
Jawline
Hail Satan?
One Child Nation
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements
American Factory
Share
The Last Black Man in San Francisco

World Cinema Documentary Competition
Advocate
Lapü
The Magic Life of V
Midnight Traveler
The Edge of Democracy
Birds of Passage
NEXT: The Infiltrators (Docudrama)

Takeaways

  • Sundance’s inside track for talent development multiplies your odds of acceptance, but not of winning a prize, as I posted in 2018.
  • The Sundance selection bar is higher for international projects than U.S. ones.
  • Congrats to the 49 acceptances for overcoming these huge odds and winning acceptance through their talents and timeliness.
  • However, few Sundance-recognized documentaries go on to a successful theatrical run.
  • There’s always IDFA, TIFF, Berlin, Hot Docs, SXSW and other prestigious international and regional festivals.
  • And licensing and distribution deals across the multiple platforms that are available today.

Narrative Features

  • The odds are only slightly higher for Narrative / Scripted Features.
    • 75 of 2,266 submitted projects were selected.
    • That’s an acceptance rate of only 3.3%

Winners & Competitors at Sundance

The Netflix / Sundance Anti-Case Study

  • Don’t miss The Cleaners, our Anti-Case Study from Sunny Side of the Doc.
  • We covered the dashed hopes of Berlin-based Gebrueder Beetz to win a Netflix deal after defying the odds and winning a slot at Sundance 2018.

PBS Documentary Slots: Similar Odds

POV

  • When I last checked, POV accepted 16 films out of around 1,000 submissions.
  • The acceptance rate was 1.6%
  • Read more about POV in our detailed 2015 coverage.

Independent Lens

Note: Sundance acceptance data as of January 11, 2019. May be subject to correction.



Personal Note

  • I’ve always been grateful to the Sundance Institute and Independent Film Project for engaging David Rosen and myself undertake a ground-breaking study of the emerging independent film economy.
  • The study was published by Grove Press as OFF HOLLYWOOD: THE MAKING AND MARKETING OF INDEPENDENT FILMS.
  • Though completed in the mid-Eighties, our detailed case study-based Findings are still remarkably useful. The methodology became a model for the Case Studies published in this newsletter.