REALITY CHECK: What happens after Sundance

Don't worry this article won't make you feel like you should throw in the towel, but it will make you feel less alone in your struggle to be a working director in Hollywood. It inspired me to hang in there and put my struggles in perspective. #WeAreNotAloneInThis

From left, the directors Justin Simien, Sara Colangelo and Kat Candler, all of whom made their feature festival debut at Sundance in 2014.    CreditFrom left: Oriana Koren for The New York Times; Dustin Chambers for The New York Times; Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

From left, the directors Justin Simien, Sara Colangelo and Kat Candler, all of whom made their feature festival debut at Sundance in 2014. CreditFrom left: Oriana Koren for The New York Times; Dustin Chambers for The New York Times; Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Directors From Sundance on What Happened Next


t’s almost a coronation: Every year, the Sundance Film Festival anoints a darling or two — indie writer-directors who are poised to break out, usually with their first feature. (Geremy Jasper was one at the festival that just ended in Park City, Utah.) These lucky few tend to go on to box-office or critical success, maybe even the Oscars. Think Damien Chazelle, whose “Whiplash” was the toast of the 2014 season; his “La La Land” is now the best-picture front-runner.

But what about the festival filmmakers whose works are lauded and distributed, but whose career paths are less charmed? After they’ve packed up their snow gear, there are tantalizing moments and deep frustrations. Many go on what’s known as the “water bottle tour,” meetings with development executives and agents in Los Angeles (where you’re more likely to leave with a bottle of Evian than a production deal). Most don’t have new scripts ready, a huge impediment, said the producer Anne Carey.

Then they struggle against the industry’s narrow expectations. “Any person coming out of Sundance is in a box, particularly if you only have one film under your name,” said the filmmaker Justin Simien. “And if you happen to be in the black box or the gay box or the woman box, I think you’re in a smaller box.”

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: “You have a whole year, and then there’s a whole new batch of kids at Sundance, and then it’s their year,” said the director Kat Candler. “Your spotlight has shifted.”

For three filmmakers — Mr. Simien, 33, from Los Angeles; Ms. Candler, 42, who lives in Austin, Tex.; and Sara Colangelo, 37, based in New York — who made their feature debuts in 2014, alongside Mr. Chazelle, what happened next felt like one step forward, two back. Their paths hold lessons for other artists and offer a glimpse into how Hollywood careers are really made.

Justin Simien

2014 Two years before, Justin Simien quit his day job to make his debut feature, “Dear White People.” He had worked in movie marketing, so he had some insider savvy. What he didn’t know was how his film, a satire of race relations set on a college campus, would be received by the mostly white audiences at Sundance. “I was kind of terrified, to be honest,” he said.

“Dear White People” struck a chord, earning a festival award for breakthrough talent. A distribution deal soon followed. “I went into it just hoping that when I came out, I could at least pay my rent,” Mr. Simien said. “That didn’t happen.”

But in Los Angeles afterward, he was in demand, attending dozens of development meetings for months. He understood the process: “Part of being a development person is checking off the list” that you’ve met with Sundance alumni, he said.

Nonetheless, it seemed like he had arrived. Even if the offers were not as big as those some of his white counterparts were getting — “Nobody was talking about ‘Jurassic World,’” he said, the film Colin Trevorrow landed after his Sundance debut — he didn’t feel pigeonholed. Several projects floated up, like a dark comedy with Anthony Mackie attached.

Yet Mr. Simien was still strapped for cash. Driving to those Beverly Hills meetings, “I was afraid to pull up to the valet, because my hubcaps were falling off,” he said.

In the spring, he sold a book version of “Dear White People” that kept him afloat financially. The film opened in the fall, to critical acclaim.

2015 As Mr. Simien toured with his film, he found a second career as a speaker, especially at colleges. “Any school that was dealing with a race issue would book the film and then book me,” he said. He made the movie to spark discussion, so these encounters were gratifying and meaningful.

He jotted down stories he heard from the students, too. When a studio approached him about making a TV version of “Dear White People,” his notes — fresh ideas — were immediately useful.

2016 In May, Netflix announced the series. In June, Mr. Simien sat in a production space and marveled at his fortune. “I’m in an office! There’s a lamp from HomeGoods! It’s mind-boggling,” he said. He presided over a diverse writers’ room of seven people, discussing civil rights, “blacktivism” and cultural identity. With the veteran showrunner Yvette Lee Bowser, he learned to make a TV series.

2017 “That was probably the hardest thing I ever did,” Mr. Simien said in January after finishing the show’s first season. Production had wrapped on Election Day; the series’ themes were landing in a much more charged cultural landscape than where they were conceived. “This show is 100 percent part of the resistance,” he said.

Mr. Simien is pleased with it but itching to get to other projects. “Creatively, I just need to prove to myself and to others in the industry, I’m not a one-trick pony,” he said.

Hiring for his series, he had noted that white male colleagues had been given more career chances. “The opportunities that I have tend to be self-made,” he said, adding, “You just gotta keep grinding — which has worked out so far.”

Sara Colangelo

2014 The writer-director Sara Colangelo arrived at Sundance that January with an ambitious debut, “Little Accidents.” Set and shot in a West Virginia coal-mining town, with a sprawling story line, it was created after Ms. Colangelo won a coveted spot in the Sundance screenwriting and directing labs three years earlier, and secured a budget of $1.2 million, all major for a first-time indie filmmaker. The cast — including Elizabeth Banks, Josh Lucas and Chloë Sevigny — was enviable, too. But even as she set out to unveil it, Ms. Colangelo said, she knew that her film was not exactly what she wanted it to be.

“There were moments in the editing room where I was like, I’m enormously proud, but these things might not be working,” she said. Was the film too sad? How would the marketplace react? “I was aware of what the challenges were.”

The film came with hard-to-meet expectations. Critics at the festival praised the acting, though, and the scene-setting.

Ms. Colangelo made the Los Angeles rounds that fall, and was sent a few scripts, but no jobs materialized. She made ends meet doing corporate videos. Financially, she said, “there were nine months or so where it was like, it’s going to be tough.”

2015 “Little Accidents” made it to theaters a full year after Sundance. Reviews were largely welcoming, but it barely eked out $10,000 — total — at the box office. Still, Ms. Colangelo earned a nomination for best first screenplay at that year’s Indie Spirit Awards, and that led to a few writer-for-hire jobs, polishing other people’s work.

In the meantime, she watched friends and Sundance alumni — mostly men — advance. Doubts crept in: Could she have done more on “Little Accidents”? Her male counterparts were often allowed reshoots. Somehow, for them, “the money was found.”

She asked herself, “What kind of leader do you have to be to get those things? Is it charisma? Is it truly gender?”

She was buoyed when Israeli producers asked her to adapt an acclaimed, female-driven foreign drama. (They declined to reveal it.) Ms. Colangelo worked on the script for months and finally signed a deal at the end of the year.

2016 As the Israeli film’s location and financiers bounced from Canada to New York, and casting decisions loomed, Ms. Colangelo hung on to direct. She vowed to be more flexible on production details and bolder in her focus on story.

2017 Her self-doubt was erased, replaced with excitement, and pride: She plans to begin shooting the new film this summer, shortly after the birth of her first child.

“There’s this feeling that the industry sometimes gives you, that you have this window of opportunity after Sundance and if you don’t perform perfectly in that moment or have a perfect script, then the window shuts,” she said. “And I think that’s a dangerous way to think about it.”

Momentum, she discovered, can rebound. “And it’s O.K. to retrieve it and find it later.”

Kat Candler

2014 A self-taught filmmaker with several shorts to her credit, Kat Candler landed at Sundance with the family drama “Hellion.” “I was definitely hoping to get representation,” she said, a distribution deal and attention for other projects.

She knew that breakout success was rare and that her route would be tough, especially without superlative reviews.

A month later, she did her water bottle week in Los Angeles. “It felt like ‘The Amazing Race,’” she said, eight meetings a day. Little came of them.

“Hellion,” starring Aaron Paul of “Breaking Bad,” opened in theaters five months later, and Ms. Candler hit the road to promote it. Live Q. and A.s, Skype sessions — “Anytime anybody asked, it was a yes,” she said. “It was exhausting, after a while. I wish someone had warned me.”

Her promotion helped, but not much; “Hellion” just did not have the marketing dollars. In retrospect, she said, her efforts distracted her from “putting all the pieces for another project together.”

2015 A year after Sundance, Ms. Candler was growing anxious. “I felt like, oh, what am I doing?” she said.

But she was halfway into a 12-month mentorship program, sponsored by the Sundance women’s filmmaking initiative. “The life coach was pretty transformative,” she said. She shelved her jealousy about others’ deals. “I can go write for four hours and feel a sense of accomplishment,” she said.

A push to break into TV directing was fruitless, though. No one wanted to an untested TV director, even if she had already conquered the big screen. (Male directors, research shows, face a lower bar for hiring.)

“Sometimes you just wonder, how much harder do I have to work to prove myself?” Ms. Candler said. Her life coach offered a mantra: You belong in the room. So at every meeting, she said, “I tell myself, ‘You’ve earned your space.’”

In the summer, she shot a campaign for Canon. Besides money from teaching a college class, it was her first real paycheck in years. Still, she worried about car insurance payments and other bills.

2016 Back in Los Angeles, Ms. Candler had meetings about a female-centered feature she was writing. It could go indie or mainstream, depending on the stars and how much control Ms. Candler ceded. “Do I really want to go out for a project that doesn’t have great humanity? No,” she said.

A turning point came in the spring, when she shot two episodes of “Queen Sugar,” the series created by Ava DuVernay that employs only female directors. No pitch meetings were necessary; they knew each other through the festival circuit.

The paucity of female directors has been a hot topic in Hollywood, but Ms. Candler was over it. “Just hire,” she said. “It really isn’t that hard.”

2017 “Queen Sugar” was renewed, and Ms. DuVernay asked Ms. Candler to return, now as the producing director.

Ms. Candler went on to shoot episodes of other series. She has work lined up through 2018.

She felt confident before “Queen Sugar,” she said. “I just don’t think that people had confidence in us. Ava legitimized all of us.”

After 17 years in the field, she said, she was at last making a living as a filmmaker.

Why Virtual Reality Needs A New Vernacular

Great article by my colleague Daniel Perlin on VR and the need for new language to explain the future.

[Photo: Flickr user  Treefort Music Fest ]

[Photo: Flickr user Treefort Music Fest]

Why Virtual Reality Needs A New Vernacular

Droga5 UX Director Daniel Perlin explains how we have to shape our way of thinking and speaking in the face of a new (virtual) reality.


When considering the questions of where we are and where we're going with Virtual Reality, I'm reminded of what philosopher Chuang Tzu wrote in the 4th century BC after waking from sleep: "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man? Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference. This is an instance of transformation."

The potential of VR is vast, and begs a new vernacular, a new language, to both describe itself for others and for itself. After designing some VR, and attending numerous other VR demos and conferences, it has become increasingly clear that clarity and definition is needed for VR both in terms of its own production as well as critique.

The purpose of this is not to negate particular formats, but to help provide specific definition for real critique, in order to help progress and design both the form and experience of VR.

So, in order to create a primer for this new language, let’s first see where we are, and then where we can go.

First, we need to clarify some terminology.


  • VR is Not Augmented Reality (AR). Augmented reality uses a layer of image upon the uninterrupted images of the real world, usually through a clear interface so the user may see the world as it is, with new images mapped upon it. This is typified by Google glass, Microsoft Microsoft Hololens, Meta 2, and the forthcoming Magic Leap etc.
  • It's also not 360 Video. That describes a video or film where a user can move the perspective of the visible image in 360 degrees. A user may do so by clicking and dragging, tapping and dragging, or moving their bodies and/or heads in the direction of they wish to view the video. It can be experienced in a web browser on such platforms as Youtube and Facebook, as well as inside a Head Mounted Display (HMD) like the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Cardboard and others.
  • VR is also not film. Film, like 360 video, plays in a linear format and moves with or without user engagement. By pressing play, the film moves through its frames, from beginning to end. Despite the language used by many, this is not VR. This is film, which gives the user control over only which angle they observe the linear story. 360 Video is a form of film. Others include most content produced for New York Times Cardboard, as well as most linear filmmaking in cinemas and streaming.
[Flickr user  Treefort Music Fes t]

[Flickr user Treefort Music Fest]


  • Virtual Reality is a system that provides a fully immersive experience whereby a user may control both the space and the time of their experience. A user feels their presence in a different reality, where they may engage with that reality directly, affecting it, as it affects them.


  • Speak of presence, of worlds and of experience. For example: "I felt that, because of the poor frame rate, I lost my sense of presence in the experience as was jarred out of the world." Or, "The world was built for many experiences, where my presence took many forms. Sometimes I am a person, sometimes I am a butterfly."
  • Speak of now, speak of feelings, ideas. Do not speak of story or plot alone. For example: "I am so present in that world of butterflies that I felt that I was flying with them right now, and it makes me feel free." Or, "There were many experiences in that world, and when I went from being a man to a butterfly, I felt strange and powerful." Or even "One of the ideas of the experience is to translate what it feels like to be a person as it becomes a butterfly. This could be a metaphor for many things…"
  • True Virtual Reality means being completely other, such as The Matrix (film), where the user is unable to distinguish simulation from the real. Speak of degrees of immersion through feelings of presence. So say, for example, "I felt so present in that experience, that it was real." Or "I didn’t believe the experience, because I kept being moved around without any control"


It seems we are in a period of transformation, moving towards the desire to collapse this difference between worlds, in a direction towards the fully immersive, other experience. In that sense, we need to begin this new language bearing in mind that creating a virtual world may be a chance to improve upon this one, or, alternately, escape or repeat it. 

As we move towards the truly virtual, we should be self-aware of the implications of our desires for virtuality. It is not enough to simply embrace the virtual as inherently good, but to understand it as a powerful construction of a set of conditions we deem to be a reality. As Artaud, who coined the phrase "Virtual Reality" in The Theater and Its Double in 1938, writes:

for this reality is not human but inhuman, and man with his customs and his character counts for very little in it. Perhaps even man's head would not be left to him if he were to confide himself to this reality – and even so it would have to be an absolutely stripped, malleable, and organic head, in which just enough formal matter would remain so that the principles might exert their effects within it in a completely physical way

In this sense, he already reminds us that the double, the uncanny doppelganger, is a powerful and valuable partner, but can also be turned against us, rendering our bodies almost or totally useless. As we imagine our VR experiences, we should also imagine our Virtual Selves. What an incredible opportunity, and responsibility.

So it follows that as we move ahead with this new language, we should also continue to develop a new set of ethics of virtual experience as well. Some questions, reminiscent of the beginnings of MUDs and of Second Life, arise: What does it mean to virtually (mis)behave? What are the implications on the "Real"? If I commit a virtual crime, am I only virtually guilty? Which reality is better? Am I me in VR? If not, can I shape who I am? A sense of autonomy is interwoven with presence. How does my being presence itself in this experience? How can I use virtual reality, not just be in virtual reality?

At this point, with so much energy and capital being thrown at the industry of virtual reality, these questions may be a bit naïve sounding. Yet perhaps there may still be a space for these and other questions. If we track the history of the internet, of revolutions in general, we see how they often quickly move from a utopian phase to intense concentrations of power in select hands. For example, as the internet was once a relatively free space, it is now dominated by surveillance (state and corporate) and serves to accelerate general capitalist patterns (shopping, entertainment, cats, porn, etc.). Do we have an opportunity here to do something different? Could this be a place where users could create new worlds?

As VR becomes a part of everyday life, we should both embrace it and critique it on its own terms in order to grow and shape it, as well as ensure that it does not simply repeat our current systems of engagement. This is the beginning of a new language, and this new vernacular should continue to be developed to help create new ways of relating to new worlds and each other, not simply mapping an old language upon new experiences. This primer is intended to help jump start this language and critique, and is clearly just a beginning as well.

Daniel Perlin

Daniel Perlin

About the Author: Daniel Perlin got his start in design making things with sound such as music, film, objects and sometimes spaces. After a few years spent in Rio de Janeiro, he managed to make his way back to New York, where he attended NYU’s ITP program and the Whitney Independent Study program. Daniel has had the privilege of designing with a diverse group of people, places and things. Recent work has been with clients such as Google, Euro RSCG/Havas, Wieden + Kennedy, Vito Acconci, Maya Lin, Errol Morris, Todd Solondz, IBM, Chase, Verizon and the Cooper Hewitt Museum. Before joining Droga 5, Daniel was a director of UX at Rosetta (a Publicis agency) and Local Projects (an exhibition and experiential design studio), both in New York City.