A picture of the Yarrow Hotel in Park City, Utah

Structure of the Sundance Film Festival

By Benjamin Craig

The astronomical growth experienced by the festival during the 1990s and 2000s created a need to expand the number of films screened and introduce more effective ways of grouping them together for easy digestion by the audience. Over the years, the festival has experimented with a range of different sidebars and today, no less than 12 separate sections make up the Sundance Film Festival program.

US Dramatic / US Documentaries

These competitive sections showcase the best new work from American independent filmmakers in two categories: dramatic narrative films and feature-length documentaries. Films in these programs tend to get the lion's share of acquisitions and media attention. Around 16 films compete for a variety of prizes in each section. The competitions are restricted to American independent films which will have their world premiere at Sundance.

World Dramatic / World Documentaries

Ever since its early days as the U.S./Utah Film Festival, Sundance has strived to present some of the best independent world cinema to Park City audiences. In the early days, the World Cinema sections were simply showcase programs, however in 2008 they were expanded into fully-fledged competitive events, fitting of the position Sundance now occupies on the international festival stage. Films in the two competitions competed for a variety of awards. Around 16 non-American films are selected each year per category.


Short filmmaking has long been a proving ground for new talent and a test bed for ground-breaking approaches to storytelling. The Sundance Film Festival Shorts competition recognises this talent and experimentation by bringing short films to a wider audience. There are actually five sub-sections which comprise the program, the largest of which is narrative shorts. These are joined by streams covering animation and documentary, as well as two specialty streams: a shorts version of the festival's fabled 'Midnight' slots, and a selection of experimental work from New Frontier. A range of awards are available across the entire category and the competition is open to short films from the US and around the world.

Premieres / Documentary Premieres

Although the Festival's focus is primarily on newer independent filmmakers, Sundance has long recognised the contribution to the cinematic landscape made by more established filmmakers who share the independent spirit. Created in the late 1990s, the Premieres section provides a platform for the festival to present these films in an 'out of competition' showcase. Films are included by invitation only and are normally selected on the basis of their compelling stories or innovative approaches. The selection usually includes around 15 films of each type, both from US and international directors.


Replacing the old Spectrum section, which was jettisoned from the festival in the late 2000s, the NEXT program provides a showcase for what the festival calls "Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to story-telling." Open to US films only, the section aims to bring these works to a wider audience.


Sundance, like all top-tier festivals, normally requires that films be world premieres as a condition of submission. Inevitably there are some films which for a variety of reasons, premiere before Sundance, but the festival would still like to show. The Spotlight category is used for this purpose, normally presenting around nine exceptional films which have already played elsewhere in the world.


Perhaps the most notorious Sundance program, Midnight has long had a reputation for screening films guaranteed to provoke a reaction. Historically, tremendously diverse films that range across many genres and subject matters have occupied these screening slots. The 'rags to riches' success story of "The Blair Witch Project" has its roots in the buzz generated from its midnight screenings during the 1999 festival, but the program has also served up over-the-top comedies, gory horror, surreal drama, and explicit animation for late-night audiences. As the festival itself suggests, Park City at Midnight is "... a good place to find a new cult classic."

New Frontier

Sundance has long recognised the importance of exposing audiences to alternative filmmaking methods and experimental films that push the boundaries of cinema. New Frontier is the banner under which Sundance programmes experimental film, media-based performances, and installations which revel in the convergence of art and digital media. The emergence of VR and augmented reality story-telling in recent years has breathed new life into this section.

From the Collection

A partnership between the Sundance Institute and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Sundance Collection is the first film archive devoted specifically to the restoration and preservation of independent cinema. Since its inception in 1997, the collection has grown to include more than 1,800 independent fiction, documentary, and short films. Each year, the Sundance Institute selects several films from the archive (usually newly preserved or restored works) for special screenings in Park City during the festival.

Sundance Kids

New in 2014, the Sundance Kids selection is the festival's attempt to bring independent films to a historically under-represented audience – children. Each year, a small selection of family-friend independent films is presented for young audiences, to help them develop an appreciation for movies that don't screen in multiplexes, have expanded universes, or merchandise tie-ins with major toy companies.

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