Imagine Yourself a HERO

As published on LinkedIn Influencers on February 5th, 2018.

The Sundance Film Festival takes over the small town of Park City, Utah for 10 days every January. Yes, it is all about movies, but it is also about so much more than that. It is a full-out cultural experience. The programmers choose from thousands of feature fiction, non-fiction films, shorts, episodic, and virtual reality works to present to a global audience of industry folks and film lovers alike. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it can make a career to have a work premiere at Sundance. In many ways this festival is like winning a gold medal for storytellers.

I am lucky enough to live in Park City, and for the past 5 years I have served as a Trustee of the Sundance Institute, which is amazing because I LOVE movies. For 10 days I am ALL IN, seeing 20+ films, attending panels, meeting with filmmakers, going to parties, and much, much more. Sundance is non-stop from 8am to 12am every day and I love every second of it. What makes this festival so incredible is to not only experience the work, but to get to know the creators of that work as well. At Sundance it truly is all about the filmmakers. Year after year I have noticed that themes often reveal themselves in the films being presented, and this year was no exception. The tag line for 2018 was “the story lives in you”, and it could not have been more appropriate. The characters in so many of my favorite films this year all had these profoundly complex back stories.

In particular, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale was easily the most talked about film at the festival, but it won’t be coming soon to a theatre near you. Instead, The Tale will be coming to a television screen near you as it was picked up by HBO shortly after its Sundance premiere. Described as one of the first truly great films of the #MeToo movement, despite having been in the works for years, The Tale is not only an incredibly powerful film, it’s also incredibly timely, as it manages to tap into the current cultural zeitgeist in a way that is astonishing. I was at the premiere of this film last Saturday, and believe me, it very much earned its standing ovation. Starring Laura Dern and Isabelle Nelisse (she was 12 when filming took place), it is about a woman who “discovers the coded details she composed 40 years earlier” of “a special relationship she had with two adult coaches.” It is a film about memory, agency, the choices we make, the choices we think we make, and ultimately, the choices we don’t make. The Tale is both a stunning film and a crucial movie for our times, so please look out for it on HBO later this year. (photo with the incredible Director, Jennifer Fox)

One film that will be finding its way to cinemas in the coming year is opening night film Blindspotting (Twitter @blindspottin), which was picked up by Lionsgate last week. Featuring searing performances by leads Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, this is a movie for your must see list. (photo with these incredible actors below)“Exploding with energy, style, and raw emotion, this film unravels today’s intersection of race and class with urgent and poetic justice.” There were many films about this intersection, including MonsterMonsters and Men (@monstersmenfilm), Burden and others, and never before in my experience at the festival have there been so many complex male characters that challenge beliefs around what it means to be a ‘real man’. There was a rap sequence in the film that blew my mind and for good reason. Lead actor Daveed Diggs was one of the original cast members of Hamilton.

Other highlights for me included Puzzle, picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, Monster, from Executive Producer John Legend, and Heart Beats Loud, which had probably the most epic title song ever. On the documentary front, the best of the best included Won’t You Be My Neighborfrom Focus Features, 306 Hollywood, award winner On Her Shoulders, and Generation Wealth by the magnificent Lauren Greenfield (@lgreen66) and Studio 54.

Onto the Virtual Reality. Sundance has been programming VR pieces for the past few years, and may have been one of the first major film festivals to do so. This year the number of submissions in this category exploded. “The New Frontier section champions filmmakers and artists who explain, experiment with, and explode traditional storytelling.” I was transported to the Amazon to spend time with the first woman shaman in Awavena, dove in to the animated world of a teenage Puerto Rican girl in Battlescar, and was trained as an astronaut in Space Explorers: A New Dawn. While all of these films were incredible, Hero(@iNKStories) was transformational. Please find a video I filmed right after experiencing this piece below.

Stories matter. One of my favorite quotes is by Harold Goddard. “The destiny of the world is determined less by the battles that are lost and won than by the stories it loves and believes in.” The Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization whose mission is to support independent storytellers, helping them to tell the stories they want, no, strike that, NEED to tell. Yes, of course, the hope is that the end product is sold, but it is clear that what might matter more is that the end product is seen, is heard, and is experienced.

Please support independent film and artists. Take some time on the Sundance website and watch the short videos on the artists behind the work. Their stories are as amazing as the stories they tell.

Here are the winners.

To find great films and where to watch them, here.

The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is Ready to Go!

IMG_7551The 2016 Sundance Film Festival is set to begin today with the opening night film Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grad. What will follow will be 10 days of non-stop film screenings, parties, meet ups, and gatherings, which means yet again, my schedule for the next week and a half is completely packed. But I wouldn’t have it any other way!

This year’s line up boasts plenty of impressive looking films, and in particular, several amazing looking films that are directed by women and/or featuring women in the lead roles. The festival has curated a special feminist track guide to following the most prominent films by and/or about women, and I know there’s several that I’m personally looking forward to, including Eagle Huntress and Audrie and Daisy, both of which I am a small investor in through Impact Partners, and Equity, the first Wall Street film starring a women since 1988’s Working Girl. There’s also plenty of women-led special events and panels throughout the festival, including discussions with Lena Dunham, Women in Film Los Angeles, and the ever popular Women at Sundance brunch.

This year promises to be a great year for women at the Sundance Film Festival, especially considering that several women-led projects have already been pick up for distribution, including Tallulah, written and directed by Sian Heder of Orange is the New Black, and The Fits, directed by Anna Rose Holmer. Follow me on Twitter (@JackiZehner) as I tweet my way through the festival, and follow the conversation online at #Sundance2016 and #Sundancewomen.

Sundance 2015 – A Look Back and A Look Forward

sundance-film-festival-2015-featured-imageIt has been a few months since the closing day of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, but I am still coming down off of my Sundance high – 10 crazy days, 24 films, and what seemed like 100 parties, panels, and luncheons. Now, in the months that follow the end of the festival, it is so much fun to follow this year’s films as they make their way to theaters and other platforms for distribution.

Five years ago, when I attended my first Sundance Film Festival, I brainstormed with a few passionate women about how we could make some noise around the lack of women in film, both onscreen and behind the camera. That year, we held the inaugural Women at Sundance brunch at my home, and five years later, it has become one of the hottest tickets at the festival. This year, the amazing Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin spoke with Sundance Board Chair, Pat Mitchell, about the barriers that exist for women in film. Check out this article from Women and Hollywood on the event, or you can listen to it thanks to Robin Morgan and the Women’s Media Center.

Much of what The Sundance Institute is doing programmatically to support women in film is anchored in research. In 2013, they partnered with Women and Film Los Angeles to commission a study  by Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., Katherine Pieper, Ph.D., and Marc Choueiti at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California. The study found that of U.S. films selected for the Sundance Film Festival from 2002-2012, 29.8% of filmmakers (directors, writers, producers, cinematographers, and editors) were female. According to available sources, this is the highest percentage of female representation at any major film festival, and it is certainly much higher than the current numbers for studio films. The following year, a second study found that female filmmakers who participated in the Sundance Institute’s feature and documentary development labs succeeded in equal numbers to male filmmakers. This was called ‘punching at their weight.’ The study concluded that gender had no impact on the likelihood of a film’s completion, as approximately 41% of all lab projects by male and female filmmakers are ultimately completed, with 80% of these going on to play at major film festivals.

Just last week, a new study was released called Exploring the Careers of Female Directors: Phase III. This was the third study in the series, and it looked specifically at the post-festival careers of female directors of narrative films. The full report can be found here, but the key findings revealed that although gender was not statistically significant in whether or not a narrative feature received domestic distribution after its run at Sundance, gender did play a part in the type of distribution these films received, with male directed narrative features outnumbering female directed narrative features almost 6 to 1 in the highest platform of theatrical distribution (over 250 screens).

At this year’s festival, 13 films directed by women won elite Sundance awards at the closing night celebration; a third of the total awards. And while we have yet to reach total gender parity, there is still reason to celebrate, as this year marked a record number of female directed films:

  • U.S. Dramatic Competition contestants: 5 of 16 directed by women;
  • U.S. Documentary Competition contestants 7 of 16 directed by women;
  • World Cinema Dramatic Competition contestants: 5 of 12 directed by women;
  • World Cinema Competition contestants: 6 of 12 directed by women.

However, the Sundance experience is about more than just films. One of the most sought after events of the festival was the “Power of Story Serious Ladies” panel, featuring Lena Dunham, Kristin Wiig, Mindy Kaling, and Jenji Kohan, with New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum serving as moderator, and it was super fun to be in the audience and listen to these amazing women. Please check out the video of the event if you want to watch.

This year also marked the 2nd annual Zions Women’s Leadership Luncheon in partnership with Geena Davis and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. This year, Zions Bank announced a contest to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the film Thelma and Louise. Contestants who wish to enter the contest are asked to film a sequel or short film inspired by the original film. The winner will receive $5,000 and will have their film screened at the 2016 Sundance Women’s Leadership celebration. I am already brainstorming what my film is going to be about.


One of the most talked about films of the festival this year was The Hunting Ground, an expose on campus rape culture on US college campuses. This was the first film that I have executive produced to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and I was so thrilled that it received the recognition it deserved from the media and festival audiences. The film was produced and directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Zeiring, the same filmmakers who brought you the Sundance and Academy Award winning film, The Invisible War. The Hunting Ground has received a lot of media attention since its theatrical release on February 27th, and has been described by the LA Times as “Devastating”, with The Hollywood Reporter called it “Shocking” and “Galvanizing.” Critically acclaimed and screening in theatres and on CNN, The Hunting Ground has significantly helped open the conversation around the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in our colleges. See links below for more articles on The Hunting Ground.

maxresdefaultAnother film that made waves at the festival, as well as being one that I am also personally connected to, was The Mask you Live In, a documentary film that follows boys and young men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity. The film is directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the same filmmaker who brought Miss Representation to the festival four years ago, and the film is supported by testimonies from experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, and media, all offering evidence to the issues facing our boys today and how we as parents can combat them. Dr. Michael Kimmel of Stoney Brook University was one of the experts featured in the film. Michael has become a good friend over the years, and he spoke here in Utah last fall, as well as at our annual Women Moving Millions Summit in New York City last September. See below for links to more reviews and articles on the film.

With another successful Sundance Film Festival in the rearview mirror, I still have a lot of catching up to do! There is no possible way to see every film at the festival in just 10 days, and therefore my task is clear…it’s time to get back to watching movies! Especially all of the award winning films that I did not get to see in January. See below for a full list of award winning films from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Hope to see you next year for the 2016 Sundance Film Festival!

The 2015 Sundance Award Winning Films and Filmmakers
U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (This was one of my favorite films of the festival! Fox Searchlight purchased it, look for it in theaters on June 12th, 2015!)
Directing Award: U.S. Dramatic, Robert Eggers, The Witch
Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: U.S. Dramatic, Tim Talbott, The Stanford Prison Experiment
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Collaborative Vision, Advantageous
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Editing, Lee Haugen, Dope
U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography, Brandon Trost, The Diary of a Teenage Girl
U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary, The Wolfpack
Directing Award: U.S. Documentary, Matthew Heineman, Cartel Land
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematography, Matthew Heineman, Cartel Land
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Break Out First Feature, Lyric R. Cabral, David Felix Sutcliffe, (T)ERROR
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking, Bill Ross, Turner Ross, Western
U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Social Impact, Marc Silver, 3 1/2 MINUTES
Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, The Stanford Prison Experiment
World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Documentary, The Russian Woodpecker
Directing Award: World Cinema Documentary, Kim Longinotto, Dreamcatcher (I heard this was an amazing film and I was sorry to have missed it at the festival, can’t wait to see it!)
World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing, Jim Scott, How To Change The World
World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Impact, Pervert Park
World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Unparalleled Access, Pervert Park
World Cinema Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, Slow West
Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic, Alanté Kavaïté, The Summer of Sangaile
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting, Regina Casé and Camila Márdila, The Second Mother
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting, Jack Reynor, Glassland
World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Cinematography, Germain McMicking, Partisan
Audience Award: NEXT, Presented by Adobe, James White
Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary, Dark Horse
Audience Award: World Cinema Dramatic, Umrika
Audience Award: U.S. Documentary, Meru
Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Short Film Grand Jury Prize, World of Tomorrow
Short Film Jury Award: US Fiction, SMILF
Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction, Oh Lucy!
Short Film Jury Award: Non-fiction, The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul
Short Film Jury Award: Animation, Storm hits jacket
Short Film Special Jury Award for Acting, Back Alley
Short Film Special Jury Award for Visual Poetry, Object