Sundance Film Festival Gears Up to Showcase the 'Next Big Thing'

Hollywood studio execs are setting up shop in the chilly streets of Park City, Utah, where a crop of aspiring stars are getting their first shot at fame.

With a track record of fostering breakout hits that include "Napoleon Dynamite," "Maria Full of Grace," "Memento" and "Reservoir Dogs," it's no surprise that competition is fierce for a spot on the Sundance screening schedule. Thousands of directors applied last fall for the event that begins today, but just a fraction earned a slot.

"The odds were better for me to win the lottery, because the lottery has no subjectivity to it … it's just random," said 23-year-old director Pablo Veliz. "I'll be honest; I had no hopes."

"I put a lot of pressure on myself to get into Sundance," said documentary filmmaker Byron Hurt. "I turned down a lot of smaller festivals that I could have applied to … not knowing that I was going to get in [to Sundance] … but just believing that I would."

Veliz and Hurt, unlike the majority of the 7,000 directors who applied to Sundance this year, will rank among the 120 directors whose films made the festival list. "It's just a huge, huge honor. I'm more grateful than anything," said Hurt, whose documentary on the hip-hop community made the cut.

"It's kind of like getting accepted to Harvard," said Veliz.

Veliz said he was shocked his Spanish-language drama, "La Tragedia de Macario," was accepted to Robert Redford's annual showcase. The film tells the plight of a Mexican migrant worker killed while crossing the border into Texas, and was first rejected by a festival in his home state of Texas.

"If we couldn't get into Texas, I thought we couldn't get into the world, but I was wrong," he said.

Initial Rejections -- 'It's Like Self-Mutilation'

When Hurt decided he wanted to put together a documentary tackling stereotypes in rap music, his lifestyle was a far cry from that of the famed performers he would eventually interview.

The then-30-year-old left his employer in Boston to move in with his parents and save on rent while getting started on his film. He began searching for funding, but the responses came slowly.

"I got rejected by about 11 funders. It's like self-mutilation," said Hurt. "People only see the end project. They do not see the process … I just tip my hat off to anyone who makes film."

Once he secured funding, Hurt managed to make his way into the hip-hop community and interview Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Common and others to discuss how men are represented in videos.

"There are moments in my film where I'm challenging people, I'm challenging their beliefs, their actions … and I think on a certain level people respected that," he said.

His documentary, "Beyond Beats and Rhymes: A Hip-Hop Head Weighs in on Manhood in Hip-Hop Culture," was chosen by Sundance and will also air on PBS later this year.

Tackling the Festival Circuit

So you want your film to play the festival circuit? It helps to first learn some patience.

With thousands of festivals around the world, directors find themselves taking on the role of salespeople, trying to find a home for their work. "It's daunting, especially when it's your first film," said New York documentary maker Peggy Sutton. "This part of the filmmaking process was all new to me," she said.

She had been working in the film business for 16 years before making her own movie, and she sought advice from colleagues on a strategy for submitting her film to festivals. Directors must hedge their bets throughout the year, trying to schedule their premiere at the most prominent festival they can gain entry to but not knowing who else might welcome their debut.

Once the films are submitted, the waiting begins.

"I put it in Fed Ex and just sent it there. I really didn't have the kinds of connections that you hear about," said director Ramin Bahrani. "It only took two weeks between Fed Ex and getting a response -- I remember them being the most depressing weeks of my life. I didn't think anyone would want to watch the film."

His film, "Man Push Cart," centers on a Pakistani immigrant who earns a living pushing a snack cart around Manhattan. Bahrani lived an itinerant life while making the film, crashing on friends' couches around New York as he had no income at the time. He describes his film as a universal story that asks, "How do you keep struggling when you know tomorrow is basically going to be the same?"

He won't have to ask himself that question. His first film is making its North American debut at Sundance this week, and he has secured some foreign distribution. Of equal importance, he has also secured his own apartment.

Unlike Bahrani's film, Sutton's documentary, "Squonkumentary," a film about the avant-garde musical theater group Squonk Opera, was rejected by Sundance. "It's disappointing … but I didn't expect it to," said Sutton. "As much as I might love the film, you have to realize what you're up against just in terms of numbers."

Watching 75 Films in Two Months

While directors brace their hopes against the odds as they submit their films and dream of seeing their names on the marquee, festival organizers are also faced with a daunting task: taking in all those submissions.

Program director John Cooper sorts through the thousands of applications and tries to pinpoint groundbreaking work.

"I feel tremendous pressure," said Cooper. "But then when I start to feel pressure I go, 'I have to trust my instincts.' Every time when I haven't trusted my instincts is when I've made mistakes."

Cooper said each submission gets at least one screening. He relies on a team of screeners to narrow down the field, giving each of them the task of sitting through 75 films in two months. Cooper jokes he only has time for a few other activities while he's putting the festival together: showering, eating and walking.

Once they select 200 finalists, Cooper and his team gather and debate their options until they cut the list by another 80. "There are a lot of voices in that room. We'll argue and argue and argue," said Cooper.

Cooper said he has noticed a rise in immigrant stories and love stories among the selections for this year's festival, along with features that include some recognizable stars in unfamiliar roles. For up-and-coming directors, it's of course impossible to know how their projects will resonate with the selection committee, but the subject matter certainly has an impact, Cooper said.

"Festivals need to be successful to bring in people," said New York filmmaker Betsy Nagler. "They're always trying to build bigger level festivals and need to discover important films. So for them, finding a film that is going to get distribution or be on television is really important."

Her film "'do," a documentary that follows five New Yorkers for five years to explore how their changing hairstyles are used to express their identities, did not make it into Sundance, but the experience of making the film has led to other work opportunities.

Sundance has also rejected some other successful independent films, including "Mad Hot Ballroom," which gained national distribution and became a box office success in 2005.

"I am never ever worried about not showing a film that goes on to commercial success; that is great to me," said Cooper. "We're really here to help the art form … I'm always happy about our decisions. We're not here to be the be all and end all."