Documentary Business

Peter Hamilton Consultants, Inc

Sundance: How to Improve Your Chance of Acceptance into the Documentary Program

Producers submitted 1,809 feature documentaries for the Sundance program.

Thirty-four films were selected, as I reported here.

Six of the 34 selections (18%) had received prior Sundance support through labs or grants.

That’s comparable to 19% in 2023, and 22% in 2022.

Selected documentaries for 2024 in the ‘Prior Funding’ category are:

  • Igualada / Colombia, U.S.A., Mexico (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Lucy Lawless)
  • Realm of Satan / U.S.A. (Director and Screenwriter: Scott Cummings)
  • Agent of Happiness / Bhutan, Hungary (Directors: Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó)
  • Nocturnes / India, U.S.A. (Directors: Anirban Dutta Anupama Srinivasan)
  • Union / U.S.A. (Directors: Stephen Maing and Brett Story)
  • Sugarcane / U.S.A., Canada (Directors: Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie)

Note: This list is based on public announcements made by Sundance and may be incomplete.

Don’t miss my widely-read analysis: Sundance 2024: $887 Million Spent on Docs That Missed Out??

Chris Smalls, Connor Spence, and Tristan Dutchin appear in Union by Brett Story and Steve Maing, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Still courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Accelerators

  • Prior funding from key players in the documentary economy also increases the chances of acceptance.
  • Examples are Catapult and IDA: International Documentary Association:

Catapult Film Fund

  • Look Into My Eyes / U.S.A. (Director: Lana Wilson)
  • Union / U.S.A. (Directors: Stephen Maing and Brett Story)


  • And So It Begins / U.S.A., Philippines (Director, Screenwriter, and Producer: Ramona S. Diaz) – 2023 Enterprise Production Grant
  • Black Box Diaries / Japan, U.S.A., U.K. (Director: Shiori Ito) – 2022 Enterprise Production Grant
  • Sugarcane U.S.A., Canada (Directors: Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie) – 2022 Enterprise Production Grant
  • Union U.S.A. (Directors: Stephen Maing and Brett Story) – 2022 Enterprise Production + 2020 Enterprise Development Grants.

Other Notable Filters

  • Prior Oscar and Sundance recognition.
  • Representation by a leading talent agency, for example UTA.
  • And representation by a publicist who is Sundance-connected.

Peter’s Takeaways

  • Sundance’s training track multiplies your odds of acceptance, but not of winning a prize, as I posted previously.
  • However, few Sundance winners go on to enjoy successful theatrical runs.
  • There’s also 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.
  • The odds are against earning sizeable audiences in cinemas or on broadcast, cable or streaming platforms.
  • But there will always be winners, and a hard-working mix of artisans and dreamers who are chasing the prize!

“Stark Realities”

  • Peter Broderick’s Distribution Bulletin (June 2023) sparked lots of soul-searching about the state of the documentary sector.
  • Peter is a highly-regarded, veteran distribution strategist, senior consultant, and friend of this masthead.
  • He writes that last year’s “Sundance revealed that the Golden Age of major sales and numerous acquisitions is over for documentary filmmakers.”
  • He explains that during Sundance there was a grand total of a single sale among 24 main competition docs.
  • That’s more evidence of the end of the “Golden Age of the Documentary”

IDA: The Oscar Filter

Meanwhile, the IDA‘s role as a powerful Oscar and Sundance filter is captured in their email blast on this week’s announced nominations:

“The Academy’s five nominees for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar were recognized at the 2023 IDA Documentary Awards as follows:

  • 20 Days in Mariupol – IDA Special Mention for Best Cinematography
  • Bobi Wine: The People’s President – IDA Winner: Best Feature Documentary
  • The Eternal Memory – IDA Winner: Best Editing
  • Four Daughters – IDA Winner: Best Writing
  • To Kill a Tiger – IDA Nominated for Best Original Score and Best Writing.”

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