Day two of the 2022 Film Independent Forum was an action packed day, telling stories, sharing knowledge and celebrating fresh voices with fresh ideas. Between the evening’s livestreamed discussion with CEO Bird Runningwater – a member of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache Tribal Nations – and three on-demand sessions to equip filmmakers with sustainable production tools, pitching prowess and tricks of the trade development of feature films, there was a fountain of wisdom to think about days!
Keep reading for highlights du jour and come back with our blog for Forum coverage throughout the week.
Keynote Conversation with Running Water of Birds : Driving Meaningful Indigenous Representation in the Media
Tuesday’s events culminated in a candid conversation about how the intensified focus on meaningful minority representation in the entertainment industry in recent years has impacted indigenous peoples in media entertainment. Over the course of an hour, moderator and producer Heather Rae — winner of the 2009 Spirit Awards for Frozen River — explored the influential career of Runningwater, the former head of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion division at the Sundance Institute. Our very own Paul Cowling, Associate Director of Film Education, also took part in the chat.
While the tone of the conversation has ranged from lament to frustration at the disparity between the sheer number of qualified indigenous storytellers and their representation in every facet of filmmaking, Runningwater still has hope that things will only get better from now on. Raised on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico with no television and only 45 minutes away, he first learned to tell stories from his own relatives.
Citing statistics from, he revealed that “nearly 80% of Americans do not know that Native Americans exist today as contemporary American people,” attributing the widespread misinformation to two elements: invisibility and misrepresentation of Affairs. Between searching for images on Google, textbooks in American schools, and often stereotypical depictions of Indigenous peoples in contemporary media, you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of an Indigenous face dating back to after 1900. “We’re experiencing an alienation,” the lifelong champion of native representation comments.
Runningwater’s 20-year tenure at Sundance was a concerted effort to change that; he describes the Sundance Labs as a generously immersive introduction to the Indigenous community, where filmmakers are treated to a welcome party in a teepee before observing — and sometimes participating in — prayers, field trips, and puberty ceremonies. Through his work at the Institute, he began to see a shift in consciousness as recent world events conspired to put the spotlight on BIPOC communities.
“People started flooding my office and said, ‘I need to incorporate Indigenous talent into film and TV.’” This is a great first step and he estimated that 20-25 Indigenous directors work for television today, and he praised it proudly work from his contemporaries for shows like Reservation Dogs (FX Networks), Dark Winds (AMC), Rutherford Falls (Peacock) and Hulu’s recent hit sci-fi film Prey. And it’s just the beginning — he called on filmmakers to ally with Native voices by going beyond just hiring a Native consultant for a project — but instead attracting Native producers. “It can only enrich the work by incorporating native talent,” he added.
From short to feature: tone risks and control your story in ’emergency’
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, dramatic thriller Emergency screenwriter KD Dávila embarked on Film Independent’s Filmmaking Project Incubator Program with the intention of speaking “to the world we now live in.” Tasked with writing a personal journey challenging the characters to release their inner strength for transformation , she envisioned a dark comedy revolving around the relationship between communities of color and the police. This lively discussion was led by Francisco Velasquez, Film Independent’s Associate Director of Project Involve.
A self-proclaimed “very pale” Mexican-American woman, Dávila used her own experience as a shield for her darker relatives to write the script, which eventually attracted director Carey Williams (2021 experimental romantic drama, R#J ). Williams admitted he was nervous about giving a humorous take on such a serious issue, but took the risk anyway and anchored the story on the friendship between the two main characters in the film, Sean and Kunle. With the film scoring the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance, those tonal risks seemed to pay off.
To maintain control of her story, Dávila chose to tailor her shorts to function on spec rather than pursue development funding. She had no intention of looking beyond the short film when she started, but eventually decided to expand the story based on the strength of the concept: “These guys find an unconscious white girl on their floor – what are they going to do? ?” “It was a big concept, even if in some ways it’s a small story, an emotional story between these groups of friends in their apartment,” said producer John Fischer, EVP of Feature Development and Production at Temple Hill Entertainment, where he worked with produced The hate you givefor the now closed Fox 2000 label. “There was a big idea there. The question was, ‘What would you do in this situation?’” Fortunately, that idea took them all the way to a Sundance premiere, theatrical release, and finally distribution through Amazon Studios.
Achieving pragmatism in sustainable filmmaking
It’s one thing to make a film about the effects of pollution and corruption, it’s quite another to deal with the bags of garbage and water bottles in the wake of a busy film crew on the set of a production. As moderator and producer Stephanie Dawson ( Down with the King , Maya and Her Lover ) asked about the real solutions that: Black bear producer Julie Christeas and Costa Brava, Lebanon producer Myriam Sassine discovered (and sometimes conceived!) of environmental sustainability on set there were some surprisingly ordinary compromises.
Replace paper and plastic with real crockery and cutlery. Use water refill stations instead of single-use plastic water bottles. Hiring a local dishwasher. Bringing your own dishes for takeout at restaurants instead of picking up aluminum takeout trays. Compost leftover food. To motivate her crew (some of whom were slow to adapt to the changes), Sassine even hired a protocol expert and found a surfboard maker in Lebanon who could reuse their collected cigarette butts.
Given the amount of garbage created on any given film set, Christeas underlined the importance of community focus to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable task. “If you look at it as lines in your budget, step by step, things for every budget that can be sustainable and green, it’s easier to tackle.”
Three filmmakers walk into a Pitch Clinic…..
Q: What could be more fun than pitching your story in 3 minutes to a panel of industry powerhouses?
Answers: See someone else do it!
Moderated by SVP of Film Finances, Inc. Paula Manzanedo-Schmit ( Diving , Ottolenghi, and the Pies of Versailles ), the first on-demand session of #FiForum22 was a mini-pitch fest for three Fellows who shared their story ideas and production plans with four veteran executives, who responded with astute questions and valuable feedback. Thanks to the following execs who joined our session, the filmmakers received great advice that was both specific and universal.
Miguel Berg, Head of Development, Gamechanger
Giulia Carusodirecteur van Catalyst & Industry, Sundance
Charlotte Lichtman Intermediary, CAA
Diego Najera Director Narrative Films, Participant
Do you have a cow in a lead role? Be prepared to answer questions about casting, production hours and cow bickering (and absurdist dark comedy The Cow of the Queens does!). Pitch a personal story about controversial topics? Respond to your marketability with a meager budget and a great cast (love story Angel in retrograde has a meaty role for just the right actor). A highly stylized drama that challenges the ideals of women, violence and how far we will go to win – and it is NOT a boxing movie? Take advantage of that unique feeling and premiere the finished product to potential buyers ( Wild Animal already releases EPs to help).
Be sure to stay tuned to Film Independent Blog and Channel for more enlightening Forum coverage throughout the week.
The 2022 Film Independent Forum is sponsored by the Directors Guild of America, SAGindie and the Mississippi Film Office.