Shannon Kelley ’86 watches films with a critical eye, choosing gems to support via the Sundance documentary program.
Shannon Kelley ’86 has worn many hats in the world of documentary film: programmer, artistic director, juror, panelist, and curator for film festivals; private consultant to ambitious filmmakers keen to get their movies made and screened; and since last June director of a prestigious program that funds and supports up-and-coming docs and those who create them.
From his various vantage points, and after more that two decades in the industry, he sees that succeeding as a documentary maker is just as tough as it has ever been, with many artists competing for a small pool of funding. But he also thinks that a few successes like last year’s March of the Penguins have helped create a shift in public perceptions of documentaries: that, as he puts it, “they are not only ‘good for you’ but they can be entertaining, stimulating, a good thing to go see on a date.” That’s happened because at least part of the public, he believes, is “tired of being marketed to” on TV and in the cinema, and thirsty for real-world experiences. That widening market, in itself, he says, is a boost to the field.
The supply side is up too. New digital technology has enabled more filmmakers on shoestring budgets to enter the field, though many still use classic 35 mm film and equipment, which are more expensive; films are now made either way, and often in a combination of both media.
From his newest vantage point as associate director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute, a position he’s held for a year, that’s good news. Kelley is quick to set straight inquisitive reporters and filmmakers—and friends—who think he’s a gatekeeper to the legendary Sundance Film Festival. (The festival and his program are both run by the Sundance Institute, although they are separate entities.)
His documentary program gives seed money up to $75,000 to fund films in the making—only about two dozen of 1,000 applications every year. (Some of these do actually make their way to the Sundance festival.) The program looks for films with themes relating to human rights, social justice, and freedom of speech, mainly, but the job of selecting is arduous. First and foremost, Kelley and a small team want to see that the proposal promises good art. Says Kelley, “We ask ourselves: Does the film, or idea, stand up? Is it original? Beautiful? Dangerous? Daring? Risky? And if so, does it succeed at what it’s trying to do? It should be provocative and cinematic and full of good storytelling.”
Then they want assurance that a filmmaker has access to the story he or she wants to tell—one can’t simply suggest a film on Fidel Castro, for instance, without providing evidence of access to the Cuban leader—and can thus execute what’s being promised. And it helps if the filmmaker has a track record in producing good films, but that’s not a must.
About a quarter of the filmmakers who receive funding from Kelley’s program are selected to attend a series of workshops over the course of a year. In them, filmmakers gather to discuss ideas, solicit advice, and critique each other’s films-in-the-making. “It is important to have a place in this competitive field where filmmakers can trust the advice that colleagues give them,” says Kelley. “We are trying to make a radical intervention in the culture by creating a space [for filmmakers] to hash out their ideas in a noncompetitive way.”
The Sundance documentary film program began in 2000, and the fund is supported by the Open Society and the Ford Foundation. Perhaps the most widely-known film that was funded by the program is Born into Brothels (2004, before Kelley’s time at the program), about a group of children who live in the brothels of Calcutta’s largest red-light district. But few of the films generate much profit—though neither the program nor the filmmakers fret about that, notes Kelley. “We’re happy if it makes it to the marketplace and does well, because it’s good for the career of the filmmaker,” he says.
“After graduating from IC, Kelley received a master’s degree in film history, theory, and criticism at the University of Texas at Austin, then moved to Los Angeles, where he dived into the world of film festivals. He volunteered and then became director of programming for Outfest, the city’s gay and lesbian film festival. He has since cultivated a new festival in Moriela, Mexico, as director of programming; has advised a handful of film festivals, including Cinematexas, Silverdocs, the Artivist Film Festival, and the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival; and has been a panelist, juror, and curator at several other festivals in the United States, Mexico, Spain, and Canada.
He’s seen countless films. Does he have a favorite? “I do,” he says, from his Los Angeles office of the Sundance Institute. “But it changes every day. So many are important for so many different reasons.”
Several years ago Kelley realized that many new screenwriters and filmmakers, documentary makers and feature filmmakers alike, were thirsty for advice from a film festival insider about how to get their films budgeted and screened in festivals, and for feedback when their films were rejected by potential funders or festivals. So for three years he ran his own private consulting business advising the hopefuls. “People have valid questions, and it can be really fun to engage with them,” he says. “But I found it hard to do as a programmer. And people have a need for critique, but no framework for responding and acting on it.”
He ended that work when he started his current time-consuming role at the Sundance Institute. He’s a big believer in the filmmaker workshops he organizes, saying he thrives on the “opportunity to affect culture” and the “sense of community” they foster. The latter is critical, says Kelley, in a field where many people work independently —“it’s a lonely life, not for sissies,” he says—and often have no institutional support and critiquing system outside informal networks of family and friends.
Referring to the overall program—the workshops and fund—Kelley adds, “There should be more of this kind of thing in the world, especially in America, where there is too little value placed on art in public life.”