Sundance Selections 2020: 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:

  • 1,774 Documentary Features were submitted to the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which opens on January 23:
  • 840 were from the U.S.
  • 934 were international films.

Selections

  • Sundance selected 49 feature documentaries.
  • The success rate is 2.8%
  • That’s up from 1.8% in 2019.

Origin

  • US: 35 selections / 4.2% acceptance rate.
  • International: 14 selections / 1.5% success rate.

Prior Funding by Sundance 

  • 24% of the 49 selections were projects with Sundance support through labs or grants,
  • That’s comparable to 33% in 2019.

They are:

  • Crip Camp / U.S. (Directors: Nicole Newnham, Jim LeBrecht)
  • Welcome to Chechnya / U.S. (Director: David France)
  • Bloody, Nose, Empty Pockets / U.S. (Directors: Bill Ross, Turner Ross)
  • Coded Bias / U.S. (Director: Shalini Kantayya)
  • Us Kids / U.S. (Director: Kim A. Snyder)
  • The Fight / U.S. (Directors: Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman, Eli Despres)
  • A Thousand Cuts / U.S. (Director: Ramona S. Diaz)
  • Time / U.S. (Director: Garrett Bradley)
  • Softie / Kenya (Director: Sam Soko)
  • The Truffle Hunt / U.S. (Directors: Michael Dweck, Gregory Kershaw)
  • The Mole Agent / Chile (Director: Maite Albedo)
  • A Social Dilemma / U.S. (Director: Jeff Orlowski)

Concordia Studio Beats the Odds

  • One production company won an astounding four slots at Sundance
  • Laurene Powell Jobs is the ultimate A-Lister who backs Concordia Studio
  • Concordia was founded by Oscar-winner Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth)
  • Read more in The New York Times: A New Force at Sundance Dominates Documentaries
  • (Disclosure: I have enjoyed consulting with Concordia).

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 a slot 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.
  • 79 of 2,079 submitted projects were selected.
  • That’s an acceptance rate of only 3.8%

Winners & Competitors at Sundance

More reading: The Sundance Anti-Case Study

  • Don’t miss The Cleaners, our Anti-Case Study featured at 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, 2020. 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.