NEA Arts Magazine

Sowing Seeds

NEA's Support for Independent Filmmaking through AFI and Sundance


Two camera women setting up a shot

AFI Directing Workshop for Women participant Taryn Anderson planning a shot. Photo courtesy of American Film Institute.

As he kicked off the 25th annual Sundance Film Festival in January 2009, Robert Redford recognized the effects of the current economy on today's filmmakers: "If you want to come into this business, you need to want it more than anything else in life because it's going to be a hard road." Luckily, today's filmmakers have opportunities for both training and public visibility due to organizations such as the American Film Institute and the Sundance Institute, both of which have been funded by the NEA since their inception.

Following the meeting of the first National Council on the Arts in 1965 the need was identified for an organization that could both protect America's film heritage and shape and support the future of this art form. With an initial National Endowment for the Arts grant of $1.3 million, the American Film Institute (AFI) was established in 1967. Over more than 40 years, AFI has preserved more than 27,500 feature films, shorts, newsreels, documentaries, and television programs from 1894 to the present for safekeeping at the Library of Congress. In addition, AFI programming includes more than 3,000 events annually, and its Life Achievement Awards, which honor individuals whose careers in motion pictures or television, have greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture. The AFI Conservatory has trained more than 3,500 artists in cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design, and screenwriting.

The NEA's ongoing support for AFI has ranged from preservation projects to educational outreach programs to exhibitions. Until 1995, the NEA also provided funding for AFI to award competitive independent filmmaker grants for both new and experienced filmmakers.

More recently, the NEA has supported one of AFI's signature education programs, the Directing Workshop for Women. Established in 1974 with a class that included Maya Angelou and Ellen Burstyn, the workshop was designed to provide training in film and television for women already involved in the film industry -- such as actresses, studio executives, and screenwriters -- at a time when very few women worked as professional directors. Although more than 30 years have passed since the program's inception, female filmmakers remain underrepresented in the field, and the workshop continues to serve a vital role. In 2007, women directed only six percent of the 250 top-grossing films.

Each year, AFI selects eight participants for the directing workshop through a highly competitive process. Classes focus on how to budget, schedule production activities, and work with actors, designers, and cinematographers. Participants also discuss and edit the short screenplay that each has selected to direct. After three weeks of intensive classroom instruction, the participants enter five weeks of formal pre-production followed by a five-day shoot and post-production. The directors are responsible for hiring their own crews and casting actors. Each receives a stipend of $5,000 and may raise up to $20,000 more for production costs. AFI helps promote the final films with a public screening to which agents, managers, and production companies are invited.

Andrew Dosunmu and Robert Redford conversing at a table

Director Andrew Dosunmu (right), a 2005 fellow in the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program, with Sundance founder Robert Redford. Photo by Fred Hayes

Executive Vice Dean for the AFI Conservatory Joe Petricca said that many participants describe the program as "the final key to making the leap to a professional career in directing."Without the NEA's support he says, the Directing Workshop for Women probably would not exist or could not be offered free of charge, an aspect which is necessary for most of the women involved.

Following the final screening, participants in the workshop go on to promote their films at festivals such as Sundance. The exposure these festivals provide is essential, a fact which Robert Redford recognized when he approached the NEA in 1980 with his plan to create a nonprofit institute dedicated to independent filmmaking. With a modest initial grant of $5,000, the Sundance Institute held its first Filmmakers Lab, allowing independent filmmakers to spend four weeks working with film producers, directors, writers, and actors. The following year, the NEA's support of the Sundance Institute grew to $35,000; more recently, the agency's annual support has topped $100,000. Today Sundance receives NEA funding solely for its Feature Film Program, providing workshops for screenwriters, composers, producers, and directors.

Speaking at the 2008 Congressional appropriations hearing for NEA funding, Robert Redford described the importance of the agency's early support: "I will always be grateful to the NEA for believing in us at that time. It was instrumental in getting us started. It wasn't just the seed funding, but the seal of approval that gave the idea the impetus."

For AFI and Sundance, the focus remains on allowing the artists to create new and exciting projects. Redford describes the first year of his lab: "In the remote natural setting and removed from the pressures of the marketplace, each emerging artist was encouraged to take creative risks and to craft a film true to their own, unique vision."

In a sentiment echoed by Joe Petricca, former NEA Chair Frank Hodsoll asserted, "For major studios, return on investment is the bottom line. [These programs] provide a place in which financial return is not the first criterion."

Numerous filmmakers can trace their successes back to the training and connections they received through AFI and Sundance, and the NEA can take pride in knowing that its early and continuous support of these organizations has contributed to today's thriving independent film field.