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Spotlight: Meredith Lavitt, Director of Sundance Ignite

This series of posts highlights some of our local industry talent: on-screen and behind-the-scenes, established and up-and-coming.

Meredith Lavitt has over 25 years of experience working in the independent film arena. Lavitt is the director of Sundance Institute’s Sundance Ignite program, which cultivates and supports a new generation of filmmakers. Prior to that, Lavitt was the director of the Sundance Film Forward Initiative, an international touring program as well as the Documentary Film Program. She was also instrumental in creating many of the Institute’s student programs and community programs. In 2004 she founded Swirl Productions and produced the critically acclaimed Home Frontwhich premiered at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and on Showtime and has worked with award-winning filmmakers including Richard Hankin and Eddie Schmidt, among others. Her last film The Grand Rescue premiered at the Mountain Film Festival in Spring 2014 and premiered on PBS spring 2016. She currently sits on the Board of Directors of Spy Hop Productions, as well as our very own, Utah Film Commission Advisory Committee. Meredith holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Brown University and lives in Park City, Utah with her family.

What drew you to the film industry?

I became interested in filmmaking in high school. It is a “make lemonade out of lemons” type story. I was a dancer and I did not make the cut for the senior project choreography class. So, instead of creating a dance piece for my senior project, I decided to document my peers in their process of creating a dance piece. I fell in love with filmmaking and the power of story. I kept making shorts through college and then started working at Sundance Institute in 1993, as well as working on my own projects.

What do you love most about working at Sundance as the Sundance Ignite Director?

I love being able to work with the filmmakers and supporting them in their vision and craft. It is so rewarding to watch emerging filmmakers realize their stories and get to the next step in their filmmaking journey. Everyone at Sundance Institute is so committed to the mission and the work – it’s really a pretty amazing group of people.

Can you tell us a bit about the Ignite program?

Sundance Ignite started in 2015 with a pilot program at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. We launched the program for a couple of reasons. Our Festival Director, John Cooper always says he got scared looking out at our audiences and seeing a sea of gray hair. His goal was to inject some youth into the Festival, create some energy, and develop a younger audience base. We also realized that the Festival, was not very accessible to a younger demographic because it was too expensive. So in response, we created the Sundance Ignite Ticket package, which is a discounted ticket package for film lovers and filmmakers ages 18 to 25 years of age during the second half of the Festival. The package includes 15 tickets and specially curated events to introduce participants to each other, the Industry and Festival filmmakers.  We also launched the fellows program, which now is a year-long fellowship for 15 emerging filmmakers between the ages of 18 to 24. Ignite is supported by Adobe Project 1324 and we utilize their digital platform to host a film challenge every year to find those 15 fellows from around the world.  We have had fellows represent states from across the U.S., as well as from Algeria, Canada, Colombia, Hong Kong, India, Mexico, Sweden, UK and Venezuela.  The focus of the fellowship is to support the fellows in both the advancement of their craft and their professional development.  Fellows receive year-round mentorship from a Sundance alumni filmmaker/producer, attend Ignite labs, and have opportunities to intern/PA or attend different Sundance Institute artist programs. Our objective is both to help our fellows become working filmmakers as well as to identify talent earlier and have Ignite fellows walk through Sundance doors attending other programs and showcasing their films at the Festival — and I am excited to say after 4 years it is working – we have had two fellows premiere their shorts at the 2018 film festival, and a few become lab fellows for other departments.  

For the 2019 Ignite fellowship, the film challenge is open for submissions from August 20th to September 17th.  Send a 1 to 8 minute short film to apply:  sundance.org/ignitechallenge

 

What are you looking for in young filmmakers?

It sounds a bit cliche, but we are looking for filmmakers who have a unique voice and fresh perspective to share.  We look for filmmakers who are driven, passionate and mature.  We are looking for raw talent and promise. Sometimes we see a film and it’s a bit clunky in its execution, but there is something in the storytelling and the voice of the filmmaker that grabs our attention.  We are an artist development program, so we are not looking for the polished diamond, rather the diamond in the rough.  We want to find filmmakers who need our support and with it can really take off.

Do you have a memorable moment that you’d like to share about a Sundance experience?

That’s a hard question to answer because there have been so many.  I had the incredible honor of moderating the Q&A with Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival after RBG premiered.  That was definitely a highlight for me, and I have to say I was a bit star struck — she is such an incredible woman, an inspiration.  Really, I have been so lucky to work for Sundance Institute for so many years and travel the world sharing films, creating dialogue and mentoring emerging filmmakers that the sum of all my work is that moment.  When you watch a light bulb go off in someone’s head and they connect through the power of story, realize their voice matters, their artistry and their story is important — those are the moments you remember and that keep you going.

What’s a fun fact about yourself?

I love to ride my road bike, I’m a terrible surfer, but wish I was better and I have too many animals!

Do you have any updates regarding previous Ignite Fellows and where the program has taken them in their career?

We do have some really exciting updates on our current and alumni Ignite fellows. Charlotte Regan and Emily Ann Hoffman both premiered their short films at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.  Sindha Agha’s short film “Birth Control Your Own Adventure” was a New York Times Op-Doc, receiving over 12 million views and premiered at Tribeca. Sindha was also commissioned by the BBC to do a series on Women’s health.  Leah Galant also had a short become a New York Times Op-Doc and her shorts premiere at SXSW, DOCNYC and NFFTY.  Sachin Dharwadker went on to become an episodic fellow in our Feature Film Program and has since gotten representation for his work as an episodic writer. We have had a number of other fellows who have gone on to be selected for some of our more in-depth creative labs; Episodic, New Voices, New Frontier, the Creative Producing Summit etc.. It is exciting to see how Sundance Ignite can be such an effective catalyst for our filmmakers, not just with their overall careers, but as members of the Sundance community. We have also had a number of fellows continue their education at USC, NYU and even the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Sundance Ignite is only a few years old, so it is going to be exciting see how our filmmakers grow in the near future.

Do you have any advice that you’d give someone that’s starting out in the film industry?

Find your grit!  It’s a hard business and you hear no a lot more than yes. So if you are truly passionate about sharing your stories or supporting other people’s stories develop a thick skin, be open to feedback and keep going, and always be nice.  Too many people think you need to be difficult, but really you need to be gracious and nice. People like working with nice people, and you never know who will be your next supporter, so just be good to everyone.

 

Syd Smoot is the Film Office Coordinator at the Utah Film Commission. She’s a Utah native and studied cinema studies at Northeastern University. 

For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at filmpress@utah.gov.

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