A Beginner’s Guide to the Sundance Film Festival By Kuba Soltysiak

My experiences are based off the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and are entirely my own.


“Don’t do it. Don’t go past the studio zone.” – Joe Wallenstein after I asked him permission to leave for Sundance.

To get to the film festival I drove with my dear friends and fellow SCA students: Ben Scott, Tim Schauer, and Eri Takada. The 12 hour drive from LA to Salt Lake City may seem grueling to some but I’ll share our secret: some Muddy Buddy snacks and at least two Kanye albums (Yeezus and Life of Pablo).


“I got blasted into space and left the safety of our ship to walk on the moon so that I would have a leg up on networking.” – Neil Armstrong on the importance of Networking.

One of my companions on this trip got a sweet hookup through his mom and got us very cheap housing in Salt Lake (about 30 minutes away from Park City). It’s clear that my friend has been listening in class and actively using the dark magic of networking. I recommend you do the same.


After I made Chef and had the experience of molding and crafting food, that was truly something else, I realized I was doing the wrong job” – Jon Favreau on how food inspired him to become a gaffer.

This was the most painful part of the festival. So many of the food places around the theatres were incredibly expensive…however some were delicious.

Best Meal: Davanza’s – Diabolo Burger (1/3 lb. of fresh ground beef, grilled jalapenos, caramelized onions, bacon, andjalapeno cream cheese on a garlic buttered bun.)

Yes you read that correctly, cream cheese. My friends thought I was a madman ordering cream cheese with a burger. Well guess what? It paid off. One of the best burgers I have ever eaten and only $8.29.

Worst Restaurant: Main Street Pizza and Noodle. Very mediocre and crazy expensive. Lame.

Pro tip: I highly recommend going to any of the many 7/11s and stocking up on snacks. This is also a general life tip too.


I hate making movies, it bores me, the hours are long, the people are weird, it just bums me out generally.” – Steven Spielberg to a child waiting for the bus.

Go see them! Sundance uses their app to get festival goers on the waitlist. It is very glitchy but can certainly pay off. However, don’t be like me and accidentally go to the wrong theater.

My Two Favorite Films:

“Kuba has fantastic taste.” – Dr. Drew Casper  to Dean Daley on Kuba Soltysiak’s taste in cinema.

Eighth Grade – A teenager tries to survive the last week of her eighth-grade year before leaving to start high school (IMDB).

Simply incredible. First-time director Bo Burnham has made a modern telling of middle school that anyone can connect to. It is simultaneously hilarious, painfully awkward, terrifyingly tense, and wonderfully heartwarming (hell yeah I cried during this movie).

Assassination Nation –  This is a thousand percent a true story about how the quiet, all-American town of Salem, absolutely lost its mind (IMDB).

This movie was so visually striking and had such a 21st century plot revolving around the impact of social media and technology on our private lives.


“Gee whiz that was a hell of a ride.” – You reading this article.

The ingredients to having a great time at Sundance: good food, warm clothes, great friends, and 7/11.

This was a Sponsored post by the 7/11 corporation.

Student Reflections of Sundance Lily Harty

Going to Sundance Film Festival as a USC Student is one of the best positions you can be in as a spectator at the festival, provided you take advantage of the opportunities handed to you. The Sundance Ignite program allows students and young people ages 18-25 to see up to 15 movies at the festival, and gives special access to panel discussions, networking events, speed dating, parties, screenings, and more.


I’m a senior in film production here, and I traveled to Sundance with 14 other students in my cohort, across the divisions in Production, Cinema & Media Studies, Screenwriting, and Animation. Traveling with such a big group of students was ideal, because we could hear from our peers who we know and trust about which movies were worth standing on the waitlist for, which were worth getting up early to go to the box office, and which ones we should just skip.

Seeing the films with my peers and being able to spend every moment between screenings discussing what we’d just seen was a fantastic way to hone my critical eye, and sort through filmic techniques I might apply to my own work. Though we think of Sundance movies as an endless parade of quirky indie comedies and tear-inducing family dramas, the selection is actually quite varied if you spend the time looking through each film and curating your schedule to give you the most personal benefit.

Beyond seeing and discussing the movies with my SCA peers, we were able to share in a number of networking experiences. The Ignite program allows you to network with the other Ignite attendees at both formal and informal events- through these, I connected with several potential collaborators: a DP, producer, and actors that live in LA. I was also able to support the two USC students I know that had short films featured in the Ignite screening.


More beneficial even that networking with other up-and-coming filmmakers were the industry speed-dating events. In these events, you sit at a table with 5-8 other Ignite passholders and are visited by a rotating group of 1-3 filmmakers who had work featured at Sundance. Through this event, I met the director of a short film who’s shooting a feature I’m hoping to work on, the director of one of my favorite experimental films at the festival, I met a producer at a small production company who’s looking for assistants, and I met an acquisition executive at a bigger production company I’ve been hoping to connect with. My peers had similar degrees of success- one met a director who’s working on exactly the type of films he wants to create, another met an executive looking for a script that fit his bill, one reconnected with supervisors from a previous job.


While my favorite part of Sundance is still seeing the incredible movies that indie filmmakers are putting out, these networking events provide a fantastic opportunity that any student would be remiss not to take advantage of.

Trojan Slamdance Alumni Profile: Sara Fenton and Ewen Wright


Ewen Wright and Sara Fenton

The short film is the bread and butter of the graduating film student. It’s a calling card. It’s a work of art. It’s an incredible amount of work.

This year, alumni Sara Fenton ’17 and Ewen Wright ’17 hit pay dirt with their narrative short FALLING which was honored with a screening of the Slamdance Film Festival They answered five quick questions about Sundance for their alma mater. They are below.

FALLING – 19 min – Narrative Short | Official Selection – Slamdance 2018 

A potentially psychosomatic white man, a woman stuck in a vortex of man-splaining, and a young black man caught in a racially charged standoff are set on a collision course as society falls apart around them in this absurdist dark comedy.

How did you come up with the idea for it and what message do you hope it conveys?

Ewen: This started as a writing project that I didn’t intend to make. For that reason I was unconcerned with production logistics and it became a project that was more of a cathartic exercise and an expression of many things I felt were insane in our society. I was representing these things using metaphor and was playing with what would happen to make those metaphors come back into the literal. So many elements and characters came to life in a very absurd and surreal world.

In terms of the message that it conveys the intention was always for this piece to provoke questions and conversations rather than provide easy answers. It’s taking on many issues and centers around questions of race and gender, and I certainly don’t have clear solutions to the problems within, so I wanted to express that in a way that would be meaningful, entertaining, and thought provoking all at once.

Sara: I like to describe this film as a comedy about racism, sexism, privilege and police brutality – because those things are hilarious, right? The tendency for social change films is to be  heavy handed and serious and treat issues with reverence and gravitas.  While there is definitely a time and place for that, I’ve always believed in laughing your way through difficult conversations.  I don’t advocate trivializing or making light of serious issues, but believe humor is a way of revealing truth and easing into what can sometimes be fraught conversations.

What were some challenges you had in bringing your vision to life?

Ewen: As I mentioned, I didn’t actually think I would ever produce this piece when I wrote it. However, once it was on the page it really became an exciting prospect. This did mean that we needed to figure out a bunch of production hurdles including a different location every day, stunts, weapons, street closures, visual effects, vehicles, and lots of background actors.

Sara: When Ewen and our co-producer Rachel approached me with a script containing children, weapons, police violence, racial tensions, moving vehicles, street closures, overnights and a large ensemble cast, it seemed impossible to put all those things into a student film.  But even as we talked about simplifying, scaling down, and re-working the script, we also kept asking for help, pulling favors, and believing in miracles.  What you see on the screen is the result of a lot of people believing in a scrappy can-do group of students. Including all those elements could have been prohibitively expensive if we hadn’t had all the USC resources at our fingertips and the generosity of family and friends.

For the big crowd scenes and police officer interactions, we worked with Film LA on a closed street downtown and one overnight on the CBS Backlot.  You may recognize the restroom at Town and Gown on campus. We got a great package deal on the cop cars and SWAT gear including uniforms and guidance from a former police officer.  Pretty much everyone we know has a background role in this film!

What’s it like to have your project be in one of the world’s best known festivals?

Sara: The Guardian describes Slamdance as the “edgy, no frills sibling to Sundance”.  I relate to that both personally and in terms of the content and tone of our film.  We got to experience both festivals and it was nice to bounce back and forth between the larger, sleeker, excitement and hullabaloo of Sundance and the grassroots DIY feel of Slamdance. One evening we’d be celebrating in a heated tent, with a DJ and fancy appetizers and the next we’d be rubbing elbows with off beat filmmakers in what felt like a house party in your friends’ basement.

Maybe it’s my Fringe festival background, but my favorite part was creatively promoting our screening.  One of the storylines in the film is a woman who self medicates to calm her emotional distress so, we had customized Falling M&M “happy pills” in dime baggies with our screening information. We distributed hand-warmers & toe-warmers with one of the quotes from our film “here: this will help” and went out daily with a staple gun to participate in the unregulated “poster wars” in the designated promotion areas (pictured).

It was great to have brunch with Dean Daley and connect with other alumni at the festival in the events organized by USC industry relations.

Ewen: We’re in Slamdance, which is a great fit for this project. The piece is a bit edgier in both content and form, and the support and reception at the festival has been really meaningful and rewarding. I can’t think of a better premiere home for it, and the experience in Park City has been deeply inspiring and a blast.

How did your USC experience help you in creating this work?

Ewen: This was a 581 Thesis – almost all of the key crew was made up of USC students either in the MFA program with us, or undergrads we’d SA’d for, or connections to those people. I want to give a shoutout to Brenda Goodman who is an incredible ally to the thesis program and all of her students and made this project feel doable despite its ambitions. Everett Lewis, Barnett Kellman and Michael Uno, none of who were direct mentors of this project, all gave me tools and advice that were constantly resonating in my mind through this process.

Sara: Michael Taylor from the Media Institute for Social Chance was our faculty mentor. Torrie Rozensweig & Ari Sandel, my Organizing Creativity profs helped prime me for the festival experience and gave me pre-Sun/Slamdance pep talks (ask Ari about his West Bank Story experience).  As much as we may grumble about doing hazardous shooting forms and rules and restrictions at USC, that framework of conscientious filmmaking allowed us to pull off some riskier shooting conditions knowing we’d done everything to ensure the safety and well being of our cast and crew.  Thanks Joe Wallenstein!

info & links:

Ewen Wright’s Website www.coolcatproductions.com

Instagram @you_n_ewen

Sara Fenton’s Website www.sarafenton.com

Instagram @fentonova

Fallling Website www. youreactingcrazy.com

Instagram @fallingthefilm

Slamdance www.slamdance.com

Instagram @slamogram

5 Questions with Alum/Producer Natalie Qasabian

Producer of “Search” Natalie Qasabian is having quite the Sundance with her film Search going to Sony for $5 million. She sat down with her Alma Mater for 5 questions below.

SPWA Lands Inventive Thriller ‘Search’ In $5 Million World Rights Deal – Sundance

What kind of project you do you have at Sundance (film, interactive, short) and what is it about?

This year I’ll be coming to Sundance with a narrative feature film called SEARCH which is playing in the NEXT category. SEARCH tells the story of a desperate father who tries to find his missing teenage daughter by hunting for clues on her laptop. It’s a thriller that unfolds entirely on computer screens.

How did you come up with the idea for it and what message do you hope it conveys?

I didn’t come up with the idea for SEARCH but I was the first person Aneesh (Co-Writer/Director) and Sev (Co-Writer/Producer) gave the script to. At the time I was in the middle of producing a Duplass Brothers film, DUCK BUTTER, and wasn’t sure that the scheduling gods of indie film would allow me to do both projects. But as soon as I read the story, I knew I had to be a part of the project even if it made it no sense for my schedule (or sanity). I hope people who see our film walk away with a different perspective on how we connect with our loved ones… and that they just have the urge to hug their families after they watch.

What were some challenges you had in bringing your vision to life?

SEARCH is pretty unconventional in its format because everything unfolds entirely on computer screens. That unconventionality created challenges that permeated through every aspect of actually making the movie (especially the cinematography, post-production and more). But specifically, one of the biggest challenges was taking the screenplay whose slug-lines included things like “INT. GOOGLE CHROME – FACEBOOK” and coming up with a plan for creating the hundreds of assets it takes to make just one Facebook page look and feel real. It turned into a balance of first planning conventional live action scenes and then strategizing how to create assets for fictional social media pages within the same limited resources that most indie films have. Luckily we had an incredible team to put it together, including and especially the only two editors in the world that could have pulled this movie off. At the end of the day the process that made SEARCH so difficult was exactly what also made it so unique and fulfilling as a producer. There wasn’t a clear roadmap… so we became pioneers.

What’s it like to have your project be in one of the world’s best known festivals? (If you’ve had a project (or projects) at Sundance before please mention that experience and say what it feels like to be selected again).

I was lucky to be at Sundance in 2016 with a short I produced, JOIN THE CLUB, written and directed by Eva Vives – which is now a feature we just completed: ALL ABOUT NINA. I also had a film that I’d worked on as Production Manager that same year called the THE INTERVENTION, which premiered in US Competition (and by complete chance the short was programmed in front of the feature, so I got to premiere both projects at Eccles on the very same day!) This time around, as a Producer on SEARCH, it feels even more special. I’m looking forward to celebrating our film’s recognition with all of my film team members. A good sale would be nice of course, but I’m mostly excited to share our hard work with audiences (after 2+ years in the making) and see some great movies while we’re out there!

How did your USC experience help you in creating this work? (For example, are there fellow USC alums/current students or professors who you regularly collaborate with or who have helped you? Is there a particular skill or experience from School that informs your creative process).

Almost all our core members of this team (12 to be precise!) were USC grads. It’s a story about a family and it was made by a true Trojan Family. Many of us had worked together before, and for those of us who hadn’t, the trust was there right away. Of course the lessons we learned in our classes carried over, but the biggest gift SCA gave us was their incredible collaborators. So thank you big time USC!

Trojan Sev Ohanian has huge day in Park City

Producer/Writer Sev Ohanian is having a massive day in Park City.

‘Search’s Sev Ohanian Wins Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award

Photo by Michael Buckner/Deadline/REX/Shutterstock 
Sev Ohanian – ‘Search’
Deadline Studio Portraits at Sundance, Day 3, Park City, USA – 21 Jan 2018

FIRST, Sev was awarded the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award

Second, his film Search was picked up today.


SPWA Lands Inventive Thriller ‘Search’ In $5 Million World Rights Deal – Sundance