Lessons from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival

Having already written an article on lessons I learned at SXSW 2019, I was more aware than normal when I arrived in Park City, UT for the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, knowing that I wanted to learn as much as I could, so I could then distill what I learned into another set of lessons.

For some reason, my brain gives the number nine the same color as it does to Park City, UT, so here are nine lessons from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival:

Lesson 1: Stay for the credits.
Lesson 2: Talk to strangers.
Lesson 3: Make your compliments specific.
Lesson 4: Don’t use people.
Lesson 5: Start doing whatever you want to do.
Lesson 6: You don’t have to be an entrepreneur.
Lesson 7: All choices can be made right.
Lesson 8: Produce and re-produce.
Lesson 9: Sensations are relative.

Most people in the film business stay for the credits after a screening. Certainly, most people at Sundance did. It’s a show of respect to everyone who worked on a film, as well as a show of curiosity, as in, “I wonder who the Director of Photography was; they were amazing!”

Staying for the credits can only bring good things, and the practice can be extended beyond the film industry:

  • If you read a book you love, read the front-matter (i.e., the pages that precede the actual content of the book), and find out who published it.
  • If you love the string arrangements on a song, read the physical or digital liner notes, and find out who arranged them.
  • If you love a painting at a museum, read the plaque beside it that names the painter and somehow turns a blue spot on a white canvas into a metaphor for how Planet Earth is nothing but an infinitesimal sphere rotating and revolving within infinity.

A movie, like any other work of creativity, cannot be made without people,¹ and knowing which people are behind a work of creativity humanizes the work, gives you names to reach out to, and makes you part of their world.

Unless a stranger seems to carry a billboard that reads, Strangers who talk to me will suffer in some way, I say: Talk to strangers!

My best experiences at Sundance came from talking to strangers.

I used to do this thing where I’d really want to talk to a stranger for whatever reason, but instead of doing so, I would act aloof, not say anything, and then regret it.

No more!

Just say something.

If you say something stupid, it’ll make for a funny story to share with others (I have many of these).

If the other person doesn’t respond, maybe it’s their also wanting to talk to you, a stranger from their perspective, but not knowing how to.

If the other person definitely doesn’t want to talk to you, that’s okay; it’s their choice, so don’t act as if the choice were yours by taking it personally.

Talk to strangers! Not doing so makes it impossible to meet and connect with new people who might enrich your life.

Instead of seeing strangers as aliens, see them as potential friends, because they are. After all, most people in our lives were strangers to us at one point.

“That was amazing!” “You did great!” “Wow!”

These compliments are okay, and they’re far better than hating on people, being envious, or not saying anything and just asking for a selfie, but they’re too vague; so vague, that when people receive them, it likely doesn’t even register.

Let’s look at a couple of case studies:

Case Study #1: After a film screening at Sundance, I overheard someone saying to the film’s lead the following: “You were literally amazing!”

The film’s lead smiled, said thank you, and that was the end of it.

Case Study #2: After a musical performance at Sundance, I overheard someone saying to the performer: “That last chord you played gave me shivers; it was amazing!”

The performer’s face lit up, and the two of them began a full conversation about why that chord had the impact that it did.

Conclusion: Which was the better compliment? I’d say the latter.

The point isn’t to learn music theory, but to listen and observe intentionally, and to be as precise as possible when expressing genuine admiration.

It’s the only way that you will be able to fully express your admiration, and that the other person will be able to fully receive it.

Here is “The Humanity Formula”² as proposed by Prussian philosopher and all-around good guy, Immanuel Kant:

Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means. — Immanuel Kant, ~1785

Thanks, Imma (that’s what we call him in the biz).

I was reminded of this formula during Sundance, due to the negative examples I witnessed of it.

A lot of career advice in entertainment seems to me to be some form of “use this person to get a job you can brag about and then get rid of them forever,” or “this person is useless to your career so get rid of them, unless pretending to care about them would help, in which case pretend away!”

Furthermore, much of the admiration that people express to each other in entertainment (see Lesson 3) seems to me to be less about expressing genuine admiration, and more about thinking that expressing some form of admiration will help them get ahead.

Bear in mind that The Humanity Formula doesn’t preclude you from benefiting from others — just as it doesn’t preclude others from benefiting from you. What it does preclude you from is from only seeing others as means to your own advancement, without recognizing their humanity, which is an end in and of itself.

In other words, it’s awesome to benefit from other people—again, just as it’s awesome for other people to benefit from you. What’s not so awesome is when we see and treat other people solely as means to acquire some benefit.

Imma got it right centuries ago, but he’s been out of the spotlight for some time, so it makes sense that we would forget some of his ideas; I mean, I didn’t discover them until very recently.

So, with the permission of Mrs. Kant and the rest of Imma’s family, I present to you: The Humanity Formula of 2020!

“#DontUsePpl“— Imma Kant, 2020

In one of the seminars I attended at Sundance, a writer-director talked about how he made his first film while he was a junior in college.

He said that when he decided he wanted to write a script, he wrote a script, and when he decided he wanted to direct a script, he directed his script.

Here’s the lesson: Start doing whatever you want to do.

There’s a pervasive misconception, especially in the arts, that you have to wait for a big break (whatever that means) to do whatever you want to do.

Not true.

If all you want with all your heart is to be an actor, then sign up for an acting class. Now act. Congratulations. You’re acting. That’s it!

How much time you’re willing to dedicate to acting and how much you improve is up to you. That last part is worth repeating: This is up to you.

Now, if your goal is to be a movie star, win trophies, and make millions of dollars, that’s great; just know that these things are not up to you, and they constitute goals that are separate from the goal of acting. Again, worth repeating: These other things are not up to you.

If what you want is external recognition for doing something, then recognize that this is not fully up to you, and adjust your expectations accordingly.

If all you want is to start doing something, whether it’s acting, cooking, yoga, or whatever…you can just start doing it.

It’s up to you!

I met several people at Sundance who are accomplished in their creative or athletic endeavors and have a “day job” — an accomplished dancer who is also a Film Acquisitions executive and a professional yoga instructor who is also a Development executive, to name two.

“Quit your job and make a living from your passion” doesn’t apply to everyone.

Being a slave to the pressure of having to “do your own thing” is no different than being a slave to a company, and neither is necessary.

You can work for a company that treats you well and you can do whatever you want to do because you want to do it, instead of because you think you have to.

Or, you can start your own business.

Or, you can just be an employee.

Anything goes.

It’s up to you!

An investor I spoke with at Sundance gave me great advice.

I asked him to describe how he approached making choices so as to increase the probability that he made the right one.

His advice was simple: There is no such thing as the right choice.

He explained that if you’re making a choice between several options, it’s implied that all your options are already good enough for you to be considering them; therefore, none of the options are bad, so no choice would be a bad choice.

Furthermore, whether a choice is not only not bad but also right, cannot be determined before making the choice, but only after the fact: Are you able and willing to turn the choice you made into the right choice?

Okay, that’s a lot. Let’s look at a brief case study.

Case Study: You’re offered a great job in a so-so city, and you’re also offered a so-so job in a great city. Which one do you choose?

Conclusion: It doesn’t matter.

The trick is that whichever one you choose, you have the opportunity to live so as to make it the right choice.

If you choose the great job in the so-so city, you can choose to do your best at work and move your career forward, which will, in time, yield more options, including perhaps a great job in a great city, or contentment where you are.

If you choose the so-so job in the great city, you can choose to enjoy the city, meet new people, and improve your quality of life beyond work, which will, in time, yield more options, including perhaps a great job in a great city, or contentment where you are.

This exercise can get complex, but it works! It’s already worked for me.

It removes the pressure from having to make the “right” choice, and instead gives you the agency to turn any choice into the right one.

At a Sundance seminar, a film executive said that in recent years, many movies at the festival have been under-produced, i.e., they were too long, they were not polished enough, or they could’ve used a rewrite.

A bold statement, considering that Sundance is one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world.

Still, according to this executive, through the gradual disappearance of intermediary roles like editors and producers, we’ve increased the risk of sharing creative work that’s under-produced.

I agree…and I’ve been there.

The only way to guard against this risk of underproduction is to produce and re-produce our work.

In music, the best guitar players sculpt their solos instead of building them; they start with a lot and sculpt it down to whatever elevates the song.

The best stand-up comics trim their bits until they’re only as long as they need to be; they start with a really long setup and gradually trim it down to only the words necessary for the punchline to hit.

The lesson is this: If you like making things, produce and re-produce your work.

Ask someone you trust for help, act as your own producer, or do both.

Don’t just rely only on the initial impulse of an idea or on your first draft. Instead, produce and re-produce it, until it’s the best it can be.

P.S. You’re reading the fifth draft of this essay. I don’t know if it’s perfect, but I’m sure it’s better than the fourth draft.

At about nine in the morning, I walk up to the equipment rental desk of the Brighton Ski Resort, eager to take off my snow boots. I’ve been walking in them for two days and my feet are pulsing with soreness, begging me to free them. Finally, I take off my snow boots. My entire body relaxes. I toss the boots to the side and stare at them with disdain. I now insert my feet into a pair of rented-out ski boots; they’re tight and uncomfortable, but at least they’re not my snow boots. I hate my snow boots.

Fast-forward four hours, and I’m skiing down my last slope. I can’t stand these ski boots. I can only move my toes inside them enough to know that I still have toes, and I’m not sure if I still have a left shin. I can’t wait to get out of these ski boots and get into my snow boots. Ah, my snow boots. It’s been so long. We’ve been through so much together. I make it back to the equipment rental desk and after much struggling, I take off my ski boots, like freeing my legs from a yeti’s bite. I put on my snow boots, like dipping my feet into warm slippers. I love my snow boots.

What this experience taught me is this: Sensations are relative!

Any time you sense that something is uncomfortable, painful, scary, or any other unpleasant sensation, ask yourself this: As compared to what?

You have the power to ask the question, and you have the power to answer it, however you choose to.

If you compare wearing snow boots to being barefoot in Malibu, you’ll hate your snow boots.

If you compare wearing snow boots to wearing monstrous ski boots, you’ll love your snow boots, or at the very least you’ll be grateful that you’re not wearing ski boots, and being grateful will make the sensation less intense.

The point isn’t to repress sensations, as in, “This broken foot really hurts, but not really, because at least I’m not dead!”

If it’s unpleasant, it’s unpleasant.

That said, though we can’t and shouldn’t try to make sensations disappear, realizing that they’re relative can decrease their intensity and give us a healthier perspective on reality.

  1. I know, Artificial Intelligence can now be creative and “disrupt” the world, but I, for one, am not interested in listening to a song written by my oven.
  2. Johnson, Robert, and Adam Cureton. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy (The Humanity Formula).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, July 7, 2016.
The view from the top of the Brighton Ski Resort in Brighton, UT. Photo by Susie Lee. Bonus Lesson: Nature is incredible.



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