Dream to Screen | How To's | Television

A Place in the Sundance

1 Nov , 2002  

Written by Emily Jansen | Posted by:

NewEnglandFilm.com gathers advice from Sundance Channel’s Paola Freccero as part of the 'Dream to Screen' series exploring how local filmmakers can get their works shown on national television.

Consider this scenario.

You are a filmmaker with a recently completed project. You have devoted years of your life (your blood, sweat, and tears as they say) to making your film a reality. And now, when you should be jubilant about the completion of your project, you are left struggling once again. The question looms large and ominous before you: who am I going to get to show this film?

If you are like many independent filmmakers in the New England area, this scenario is not one that needs to be imagined. In fact, it is all too familiar. Offering up advice on the topic this month is a New England native who knows more than a thing or two about filmmaking and film programming — Paola Freccero, Sundance Channel’s Senior Vice President of Film Programming. In that role, Freccero is responsible for overseeing the acquisition, programming, and scheduling of Sundance Channel’s film line-up. In addition to these responsibilities, Freccero is creating the programming plan for the forthcoming Sundance Documentary Channel and is overseeing Sundance Channel Home Entertainment, the newly-created home video line to be distributed by Showtime Entertainment.

Although now based out of New York City, Freccero attributes her interest in film to the countless trips she made with her mother to the Pleasant Street Theatre while attending high school in Northampton, Massachusetts. Here she was able to see and experience a wide variety of films including foreign films and American independent films. This was her first introduction to what would later become a career. "I didn’t really know much about film at the time… And I didn’t really have a sense that there was a division between big, Hollywood studio films and little, foreign subtitled films… I just grew up not being afraid of subtitles, and not being afraid of things that were quirky, and not being afraid of things that didn’t have major stars in them," she said. More importantly, though, she learned the value of "a good, unusual story."

After college, Freccero went on to work in media relations and publicity. As a publicist for the Independent Feature Project in NYC, she was reacquainted with the independent film world. It was here that she rekindled her interest in independent filmmaking and embarked upon a path from which she would never look back. Following jobs with high-profile companies such as Samuel Goldwyn Company and Turner Productions, Freccero accepted a position as Artistic Director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival where she curated both the Feature Film Festival and the Short Film Festival. During her time with the PSIFF, Freccero learned another important lesson. "I realized that programming is largely having a good eye for film and having an understanding of how films and audiences interact. That is really, I think, the essence of programming."

Freccero’s experience with the PSIFF also fostered in her an even greater appreciation for the dedication of the independent filmmaker. Perhaps this admiration is reflected in her programming choices for the Sundance Channel. Unlike many other network and cable stations, the Sundance Channel offers "the full range of independent filmmaking, from shorts, experimental, animation, features, docs, and everything in between — with an emphasis on the new," Freccero explained. "We are not exclusively new but we like to focus very much on new and emerging filmmakers and new and emerging films."

Significantly, the mission of the Sundance Channel (and all of the Sundance entities) is to provide independent artists a platform for their work and to give audiences the opportunity to experience this work. The Sundance Channel attempts to bring the film festival experience to television, and an important result of this mission is that Sundance shows films that often cannot be seen elsewhere. This is good news for independent filmmakers.

Each year the Sundance Channel acquires an average of 100 new films — completed projects only. In a typical year, approximately 25% of newly acquired works are documentaries, 25-30% represent International Cinema (either documentary or fiction), 40-50% are American independent films, and less than 5% are experimental or animation. But do not get discouraged by numbers. "Good films have a really good shot of getting on Sundance Channel," Freccero says. And where do they find these films? The answer is, in many places.

Generally speaking there are three main ways in which a film comes to the attention of Freccero and the programming team at the Sundance Channel. One option is for a film to be directly submitted for consideration. However, this method of submission is the least likely to result in the film being acquired. (Freccero did point out that, "because there are fewer opportunities for documentaries to showcase themselves," documentaries have a better chance of being selected from random, unsolicited submission than features do.)

A second option is for your film to be discovered at a film festival. While the Sundance Film Festival provides an excellent starting point, Frecerro and others on her staff keep close tabs on the entire festival circuit, traveling throughout the country and the world to see the latest offerings in independent film. Freccero even goes so far as to say that "the likelihood that someone is going to get a film onto Sundance Channel probably goes up depending on how much critical response the film has had at places like film festivals."

Finally, a small number of films are acquired via small distribution companies. In this case films that are not already spoken for by another television network can be acquired for broadcast.

Freccero points out that, particularly where documentaries are concerned, subject matter often comes into play when she is considering whether to acquire a film. Sometimes she actively seeks a certain type of film. For example, films were carefully researched and cultivated for inclusion in the Sundance Channel’s "Arte Latino" FilmFest that aired in September 2002. For this, the third edition of Arte Latino, Sundance premiered eight recent feature films and eleven short films. Tracking down the hottest finds in Latin America cinema was an essential element in putting together this television experience. Likewise, other programming events such as "Hi-Fi Fridays" (music-based programming) and "Shorts From the Underground" (contemporary and vintage short films) have necessitated that Frecerro search out the exact type of film she needed. Still, Freccero always keeps her eyes and ears open to new possibilities for future programming, regardless of whether or not a film falls into a category that is actively being curated.

"Our criterion is amazingly open-ended," she stated. On the fiction side, Freccero emphasized that she is not looking for recreated Hollywood films on a low budget. "I’m looking for something where somebody’s creativity really shines through, and where the approach is one where you cannot imagine that film being made by anyone else. Fresh storytelling. Good, innovative writing. A filmmaker who has taken some risks."

Freccero continued by saying that often films shown on Sundance "don’t have enough bells and whistles for Hollywood but make for engaging television watching. It’s a combination really of actual physical quality… and also a spark of imagination, creativity." In a nutshell, "it’s not something you have ever seen before and not something you’re likely to see again."

"On the documentary side, I would say it is probably very personal stories, very creative storytelling. A documentary that was clearly made without regard for a formula — we avoid the boundaries that normally are sort of around films made by other television networks… What we like to see are documentaries that are made purely without regard to anybody’s story structure except for the storyteller," Frecerro said.

Freccero went on to say that format has very little to do with whether a film was deemed appropriate for the Sundance Channel. Additionally, running time was not a consideration. The one requirement is that a filmmaker can deliver a DigiBeta Master.

Ultimately, having your film selected for acquisition by the Sundance Channel is not an easy task. Somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 films will be reviewed each year, though only 1,000 films will merit serious consideration and only a hundred or so fortunate filmmakers will have their project acquired for broadcast. Yet given the wide scope of work being shown on the Sundance Channel, independent filmmakers of all genres can and should consider this channel as a possible outlet for their work — that is, once you have considered the last few tidbits Frecerro has to offer. She concluded the interview with some heartfelt advice for all of the independent filmmakers striving to find their audience.

"Really work hard to know what your film is before you try to sell it," Freccero said. In other words, pay attention to what people are showing and direct your film towards the most appropriate outlet.

And finally, "the best thing a filmmaker can do for his or her film is to give it a life," Freccero explained. "Let the life that it takes on — the audience that finds it, the audience that it finds, the critical praise — let all of that do the sales work… Try [your] hand at festivals, try [your] hand at markets. Do the kind of showcases that really allow your film to be seen by real people, and critics, by industry people." And most importantly, "make the film that you want to make. Because ultimately, if you have creativity, and you have an original idea, and you have a gift for filmmaking, it will come through in the original and creative and imaginative piece of work that you create."

For more information about the Sundance Channel, visit www.sundancechannel.com.

For more information about the Sundance Channel, visit www.sundancechannel.com.