Five things I learned at the Sundance Film Festival

By: Ana Quiroz-Samayoa

Every year, thousands of people flock to Park City, Utah, to attend the Sundance Film Festival. The film festival for filmmakers is what fashion week is to fashionistas, we are presented with the films and creators that will influence the industry for years to come. Numerous directors got their so called “big break” at Sundance, such as Wes Anderson, Robert Rodriguez, The Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, and most recently Damien Chazelle to name a few. Anyone who is even remotely interested in the art of filmmaking dreams of one day attending this prestigious event.

In 2014 I was just another college student with Sundance on my bucket list. On a whim, I checked their website to see if I could ever afford to attend and I discovered that they accepted volunteers. After filling out an application and going through an interview I found out that I was accepted to volunteer. I finally had the golden ticket, I was going to Sundance! Attending the festival changed me and I came back with a new sense of self as a filmmaker. So here are the things I learned during those two magical weeks:

#1- If I want it, I can make it happen

After being chosen to volunteer my first thought was “how on Earth was I going to get there?” I had a full time job, classes to attend and no money. But I just HAD to go, there was no way I was going to give up this opportunity. I made it my priority to get there.

The first issue was of course money. I remember asking my parents for money, and though they didn’t understand why I was dying to go spend my money and then work for free, they saw how enthusiastic I was about it, so eventually they gave me some. My sisters who were 10 and 11 at the time saved up their allowance and gave me about four dollars to cover my expenses. I skipped on a few lunches so I could save that cash and did everything possible short of just singing mariachi music on a street corner to gather enough for the airfare.

I then asked my boss to let me take my entire year’s worth of vacation- plus a few days no pay, and he also didn't understand why I was so enthusiastic to go to Utah and work for free. In hindsight, this doesn’t make any sense, but I mean, come on, this is Sundance people! The opportunity of a lifetime! It took a lot of extra work to make the trip happen, but it was completely worth it and it taught me that there isn’t much I can’t make happen if I really want it.

#2- The cold doesn’t bother me anyway

Anyone who knows me knows I absolutely hate mornings and cold weather. I barely make it out of bed in the winter, but at Sundance, my body just didn’t care. In order to stick to my 2-3 film a day schedule, I sometimes had to wake up at the crack of dawn to wait list or get in line for a film. Luckily, every film I saw that year was worth the terrible conditions of waiting (pack layers, people!).

I was also working as a transportation liaison, which meant that my entire shift was outside. Outside in Park City, Utah, in January, means damn cold, but I loved my job. I’m biased but being on the Transpo team was the best! Since our shifts were outside, they were shorter and that gave me the chance to see more films. Well, that and the fact that I barely slept at all the entire time. There is a lot to do at the festival so comfort and sleep just isn’t a priority for anyone in Park City.

#3- I’m not as weird as I thought I was

Okay, yes, so in the “real world”, I am a bit eccentric, but at Sundance I was with my people. Living in a small town with almost no film community can really make a person feel like an outsider. I remember even being on the plane thinking “Why am I going alone? I’m not going to make any friends!”

With my "Festie Bestie", Amber.

With my "Festie Bestie", Amber.

After I received my room assignment I waited in the lobby until the time we could actually go to our temporary homes. Other people were already having wonderful conversations about all of the movies they were going to see. I just sat there alone until a girl with bright red hair sat next to me. It was the kind of red I had only seen on Ariel from the Little Mermaid so I was of course intrigued. We started speaking and then we realized we were actually roommates! Our conversations ranged from our favorite films, being from small towns, and our weird nerdy obsessions. I credit Amber for getting me obsessed with Doctor Who. Instantly I had a friend that I felt I’d known forever, Amber was the greatest “festie bestie” I could’ve ever ask for, and has returned to Park City, every year since.

In my volunteer position as a transportation liaison, I was able to really talk to people in the industry. I finally found people that also live for the art of filmmaking and it was exhilarating. It was because of these conversations that I knew which films were going to be worth attending and which I could wait a few more months to see. (Tip: Whether you’re volunteering or just attending I would be careful when you’re speaking about any film because odds are someone in the cast or crew is right behind you.)

I had one lovely couple that was at my bus stop almost every day, giving me updates on their son’s film, we all celebrated when it was finally sold. The film was “The one I love” so if you haven’t already watched it, do that asap.

#4- Celebs, they’re just like us!

I’ll be honest, since I grew up watching mostly Spanish television I didn’t know a lot of the celebs there. I have since gotten better, but most of the time other people had to point them out to me. I also think that it was so cold out there that everyone just looked like marshmallows. But that’s the thing we are all just there to experience films and find our way around.

The best part of having the cast and crew in attendance was the audience Q&A’s. I gained so much insight on the whole process. I loved when they spoke about the struggles of making the film. When I was making Maintain, I often thought about these moments to remind myself that everyone goes through it. It was interesting to learn that some scripts were ideas from decades before, that finding funds is almost always a nightmare and that love is truly what makes most of these films see the light of day.

I also really loved that even after all these years so many artists still get slightly nervous speaking in public. I guess that’s just one of those fears that never completely goes away.

#5- Live without fear

After speaking with so many people and watching tons of films I realized that so many of them started just like me. Film students that financed through kickstarters or people that just wanted to try something new. Everyone was nervous about their films. What would the critics say? What would the audience think? Would they sell? Would they win awards?

I came back to little ol’ Wilmington, Delaware with a brand new sense of direction. I realized that I just had to get out there and start creating. It didn’t matter if everything I made sucked, I was going to get it eventually. You can’t succeed without having had failed first.


If you ever have an opportunity to attend the Sundance film festival, do it! How you get there doesn’t matter, as long as you get yourself there. You will go back home with creativity coming out of every pore in your body. You will also come back extremely tired because you chose to go watch a movie or hear a talk instead of sleeping and it was worth it every time. You will learn more about yourself in those two weeks than you ever have. If you are interested in volunteering for Sundance, check out their website for further information. I hope to see you all there soon!