The University of Sundance

 National Geographic/Courtesy Everett Collection

Each year, 2,500 hopeful filmmakers from Scranton to Southeast Asia submit scripts to the Sundance Institute hoping to score one of 12 spots in the organization’s 30-year-old Screenwriters Lab. Each one no doubt dreams of becoming the next Darren Aronofsky, Lisa Cholodenko or Debra Granik, whose breakout films were cultivated in lab sessions. But the competition is fierce: About half of the dozen slots are self-selected, with the rest referred by Sundance alums or film school and festival professionals.

The week in January before the Sundance Film Festival begins, the lucky dozen fellows retreat to the remote, exquisite Sundance Resort to rewrite their scripts in intensive consultation with screenwriter advisers. “It’s a safe place to ask tough questions,” says Feature Film Program head Michelle Satter of the lab and its 420 advisers, who as top industry talent are responsible for billions of dollars in revenue, yet have come to Sundance to help the newbies for free. Fellows are exposed to the festival’s new films and treated to career-changing introductions. “We put together their team — attorney, agent, manager, producer,” says Satter, who has worked tirelessly to extend the lab’s reach to such countries as Hungary, France, Jordan and Mexico — the latter yielding such buzzed-about storytellers as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron — and, starting in 2012, India. Satter predicts that about 50 percent of the lab films get made, “and 95 percent of those go on to major film festivals.”

NOTABLE LAB SCRIPTS

  • Boys Don’t Cry (1999) Kimberly Peirce
  • Requiem for a Dream (2000) Darren Aronofsky
  • Laurel Canyon (2002)  Lisa Cholodenko
  • Down to the Bone (2004) Debra Granik
  • Maria Full of Grace (2004)  Joshua Marston
  • Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) Miranda July
  • Half Nelson (2006) Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden
  • Sin Nombre (2009) Cary Fukunaga

In 2005, Sundance spawned the Rawi Screenwriters Lab at the Wadi Feynan Ecolodge in Jordan’s 116-acre Dana Biosphere Reserve, which serves as a peaceful refuge for the endangered Syrian wolf and the indie screenwriter-director alike.

The critically acclaimed feature Amreeka, from U.S.-born Jordanian-Palestinian Cherien Dabis, grew out of the first Rawi (Arabic for “storyteller”) Screenwriters Lab in Jordan in 2005 and premiered to glowing reviews at Sundance in 2009. “One potential investor asked, ‘Why do you think this movie stands a chance?’ My executive producer said, ‘Look at who’s supported her,’ ” Dabis says. “Sundance gave Amreeka credibility.”

Dabis returned to the lab’s Utah branch last year with her sophomore effort, the Arab-American family dramedy May in Summer. She says it felt like coming home. “They told me something I’ll never forget, ‘Two words: surprise and suspense,’ ” Dabis says of the nurturing counsel she received from such adviser-scribes as Zachary Sklar (JFK) and Howard Rodman (Savage Grace). “In a world where there is universal cynical rejection, the lab offers acceptance and support.”       

WORLD VIEW: The Screenwriters Lab has a global presence         

Bordeaux, France: Sundance’s foreign screenwriting lab partner kicked off here in 1993 at Chateau Beychevelle, a winery founded by an ancestor of Audrey Hepburn.

Tel Aviv, Israel: In 2010, Sundance ran a small screenwriters lab here. It was such a hit, there’s talk of reviving it next year.

Mumbai, India: In a nation sparse with independent films, the Mumbai Mantra/Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab will launch in spring 2012.

Istanbul, Turkey: The first screenwriters lab here kicks off in February in partnership with the Istanbul International Independent Film Festival.

Jordan: The Royal Film Commission of Jordan leads Sundance’s Rawi Screenwriters Lab in a desert famed for Bedouin storytellers.

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