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Sundance Keynote Celebrates Collaboration: ‘We Are Independent Filmmakers, but We Do Not Make Things Independently’

On Sunday, January 21, festival attendees gathered to celebrate the unique triumphs and struggles of independent film producers at the Sundance Producers Celebration. In addition to honoring the producers of the films in this year’s festival, the event featured a keynote address from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” producer and frequent Daniels collaborator Jonathan Wang and presented the 2024 Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Awards.

Brad Becker-Parton (“Stress Positions”) received the Amazon Studios Fiction Producers Award, while Toni Kamau (“The Battle for Laikipia”) received the Amazon Studios Nonfiction Producers Award. IndieWire shares Wang’s keynote exclusively below.

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Jonathan Wang: In 2015, I attended Sundance for the first time with an interactive short film called “Possibilia.” It was made by some unknown music-video nerds working under the pretentious pseudonym ‘Daniels.’ All of three people watched the film, two were Daniel Scheinert’s parents, and the third was probably a glitch in the tech. Though the ‘Interactive Short’ badge around my neck garnered me as much cache as a burnt piece of toast, it did give me an odd super-power of causing agents to inexplicably enter a dead sprint away from me as soon as I entered a space. Nonetheless, I decided to come to this very event. I sulked into the room, confirmed what I already knew, that “I know nobody here,” and proceeded to awkwardly stand in that corner over there and watch all the ‘real filmmakers’ laugh and chat over their bite-sized-quiches and mimosas.

Now, this feeling was a familiar one for me. I often felt like a fish out of water, not really belonging and split in the middle. Yes, partially because I am mixed-raced, but also because I didn’t fit squarely into any one label. I was a musician, an artist, a producer, a writer. But in this room nine years ago, I witnessed something quite special. I watched filmmakers support each other and welcome each other for the very fact that they shared in the struggle of telling stories. That was powerful to witness. It then compounded when Mark & Jay Duplass took the stage to give the very keynote that Sundance foolishly believes I am worthy of giving right now. But Mark and Jay spoke proudly about working with microbudgets, building loyal crews, sharing points generously, having a ‘no assholes policy’, and I was really moved. Those values were how I tried to approach producing my projects. But how could this be? I was an outsider. I was not like these “real filmmakers”.

See Daniels and I started working at a time when we didn’t even have enough money to be considered a micro-budget. We were more in the ‘defer-your-fees’ and ‘please-use-the-Starbucks-on-the-corner-if-you-need-a-bathroom’ budget range. But we made up for our lack of money by being generous with our time, with our joy on set, and with our genuine appreciation and empowerment of the crew. So, although I entered this room as an outsider merely observing, I remembered leaving with a blossomed feeling of kinship. Not merely because I left feeling more qualified to wear the label of ‘Producer,’ but rather, I was able to witness a thriving community enact their approach to a job in a way that felt aligned with my beliefs—with my unconventional, non-hierarchical, play-focused approach. That was astounding.

So, before I begin to offer any semblance of advice to a room of people I’d much rather garner advice from, I want to take a moment to acknowledge those people who are in this room for the first time, feeling like an outsider, and stop to say… I see you. I welcome you. And please come find me later, I’d love to chat. I also want to acknowledge the brilliant Michelle Satter, Shira Rockowitz, Kristin Feeley, and the entire Sundance Festival and Sundance Labs staff for making these events possible then, and for tirelessly supporting storytellers, now. You’ve been seeing and welcoming people like me, like us, for decades. So, thank you.

Now, like almost all of the films I’ve made, this is the point in the story where we take a turn and start making people feel deeply uncomfortable. I am gonna address some fun topics like toxic work environments and the myriad ways we can fail as producers. And since there can’t be a happy ending without a low low-point, I am going to start even darker and talk about the agony of our work. But don’t worry, there will be a happy ending.

I have always been hyper aware of others. This was largely an adaptive behavior to cope with a challenging upbringing, but as a result, I have gotten pretty good at being attuned to imbalances interpersonally. Because of this ability to be attuned to others and their feelings, when I began working on set, I quickly became aware of a general feeling of fear and defensiveness across departments. While I’m not qualified to play psychologist and pretend to be prescriptive of a root cause, I can face the facts and admit that being on set can be pretty brutal. Our work is hard, our days are long, and many of us have experienced things on sets and in offices that are flatly traumatic. Too often on jobs as we sit around video village, I hear “war stories” that make my jaw-drop. Accounts of abusive work conditions, toxic bosses, unpaid labor, you name it. Now, I don’t bring these up to trauma-dump, but I want to acknowledge that we work in a hyper-competitive, highly public, and notoriously toxic trade, and that we as the Producers — and I will also add Directors — must recognize the way people are entering into our spaces, our sets, and our projects.

So why am I bringing up these dark points during a talk to celebrate producers? Well, it’s Sundance and everyone loves a fucked up drama that makes you feel really weird after you leave. But truly, it’s because I see prioritizing the health of the sets and teams we manage as a hugely important part of our job that is often not discussed. But also, I think lots of us in this very room have experienced the pains and failures of this job and are in need of support. So I want to hold space for us here and now and say, again, that I see you. In his novel ‘The Body Keeps The Score,’ Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk puts it beautifully, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health. Safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives. Numerous studies […] around the globe have shown that social support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma. Social support is not the same as merely being in the presence of others. The critical issue is reciprocity. Being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”

I understand that standing up here and offering social support is an easy thing to say. But to actually do the work, to make one feel safe while simultaneously being stressed and pulled in many directions, well that is a different beast. So I want to commit to you all and say that I will strive to do this work with you here and on my sets, to the best of my ability. But in exchange, I ask that we as a community link arms together and all strive to make safer connections on our individual sets, in our individual offices, and between each other. Because, if we are able to unite under the central premise that we will support each other in our needs to feel safe and to feel seen, then our cups will be filled; and from a place of abundance we can then help our filmmakers, our actors, and our crews also feel safe and supported.

What is critical to see here is that behind this is a reorientation of our ultimate incentives. Meaning, when we put reciprocal care at the center of our process, then the desires for profit, fame, power, you name it, will all feel subservient to a higher order goal—one that is seeking the good of others. And in so doing, we make the first step towards flourishing on healthier and happier sets and offices.

Now I know many of you were limping into this festival, already crumpling under the pressure of making ends meet while also fighting to get your stories made or distributed. Throw into the stew a pandemic, the strikes, studio consolidations and whatever the hell is ahead, and I would understand if we all collectively vomited up our bite-sized-quiches and mimosas. So adding the responsibility of genuine care on top of our already overburdened load, I completely understand that it might feel like too heavy a weight. And you’re right. It is. I don’t know how to shoulder all of this on my own. Because I can’t. But that is the beauty of this room. Yes, we are independent filmmakers but we do not make things independently. We don’t have to go it alone. In fact we can’t. We are a community and we must prop each other up and help shoulder the load.

So how can we do this, really? I believe that the key is in upgrading the stories we tell ourselves about our work and each other, just like we are doing now. Story is our most important social technology. Every belief we have is built off a story. If you believe the story that the person standing next to you is your competition, an enemy to be defeated in this game of scarcity, then you will be at war with them. But if we believe the story that the person standing next to us is our ally, our partner in arms, then we will strive to collaborate and seek to help them. And therein lies our power: we are the storytellers, the ones who can rewrite the narrative to build spaces that heal rather than divide, that renew rather than destroy. We are given a huge responsibility, and sure, not all of us are screenwriters, but all of us are storytellers. We tell a story in the way we treat each other, in the way we cast our films, in the way we build our productions, in the way we schedule our days and manage our budgets. And here, within these walls, is where I hope the story of old ends. The tired old story where fame, fortune, and power were the virtues to strive for. And from the ashes of that old tale, I hope new heroes emerge—heroes of kindness, collaboration and profound care. That is the story I want to tell.

As we leave today to watch films, go about our meetings, and enjoy this wonderful festival, I challenge us to pause and take inventory of the story we embody. I challenge us to be present with those we are here with and to make space for them to be seen. And I challenge us to take this spirit of care, and to infuse it into our lives, our sets, our stories, and our planet. Thank you all

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