Great mentors are hard to find and, perhaps, even harder to become. While there are several qualities mentors can have that are impactful, there's one that I think needs to be considered critical -- long-term commitment.
Shepherding new talent into the film and television industry is something that Sundance is getting right. Unlike several industry mentorships and support programs which only offer writers a short time with industry experts, once a writer becomes a part of the Sundance family, the organization continues to support that person through the formative professional years.
"The year-round support for these writers is critical in terms of helping them move forward," Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, tells me.
The Institute just wrapped up its second Episodic Story Lab, which takes the concept of its feature film screenplay labs and applies it to writers looking to script television or web series. Last year, the program accepted applicants primarily through referral but this year, the program opened up online submissions. More than 2,500 projects applied.
"The discovery of new writers is really critical in terms of how we can serve the community and and the industry," Satter says. "We had writers from a wide range of creative experience across different disciplines -- filmmaking, music, literature, new media -- we had our first web series that's part of the lab."
Mishna Wolff is the bestselling author of the critically acclaimed memoir I'm Down. She took her book to the 2009 Sundance Screenwriters Lab with the hopes of adapting it into a screenplay. During the process, she realized that she would have to cut too much of her material to fit the 90-page screenplay format. So when she decided to try her hand at adapting it into a television series, Sundance was there to accommodate that shift.
"I think my expectations were that I was going to leave the lab with an exact idea of how I was going to change my pilot and exactly what the first season of television would look like," Wolff tells me. "The reality is, I'm leaving with the questions I need to ask myself. I am actually so happy about that."
Writer John Lopez came to the lab with his project Crude, the story of a young mother who leaves her family to support them with a steady job in a North Dakota oil boomtown.
"There is literally nothing like what they do here," Lopez tells me about the labs. "There are other great support programs, I've done a couple of those and they're great. But they're nothing like this."
One reason for that is Sundance's ability to cultivate and maintain great relationships with showrunners and industry experts who, just like Sundance, are in it for the long-term success of the writers.
"They treat you with a level of expectation of quality in your work and a level of support that I don't know if you get as a first-time staff writer on a TV show," says Lopez.
"A lot of the showrunners and industry mentors who were there the first year wanted to come back," says Satter. "It says a lot when people who are incredibly busy take that time off to be a part of this creative community."