THE PROGRAMMERS: Trevor Groth (Sundance)

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
[Photo by Michael Rababy]

Twitch is proud to present the third entry in our current ongoing interview series. Titled The Programmers we'll be spending the next several weeks putting a series of questions to the people who decide what films make it - and what films don't - into the film festival world. From regional, highly specialized festivals up to the biggest of the big, we're putting the same batch of questions to everyone in the hopes that it'll give you something of a picture of how the festival world works as well as a portrait of the people who drive it. Over the coming weeks programmers from Fantastic Fest, The Toronto International Film Festival, The Los Angeles Film Festival, Sundance, The New York Asian Film Festival, Fantasia, and Cannes will all be chiming in. Today it's time for Trevor Groth, leader of the pack at Sundance.

First, can you tell us your name and what festival(s) you work for.

Trevor Groth, Sundance Film Festival

What was the moment when you realized that film was something that you wanted to do - and actually could do - for a living?

I wanted to be involved in film since I was 8 and my family subscribed to Showtime. I would watch movies late into the night and sometimes fake being sick the next morning so I didn't have to go to school...allowing me to watch even more movies during day. But I didn't know that I could earn a living working in film until I first attended the Sundance Film Festival (The US Film Festival at the time) when I was in high school. It was an epiphany for me and I knew that I wanted to become a programmer.

How long have you been involved programming for festivals? How did you get involved?

Fortunately for me, my first job out of college was on the programming staff for Sundance in 1993. I had interned for the Sundance Institute prior to that which allowed me to first meet the programmers who would eventually hire me.

On average how many films do you see per year? How many festival slots do you have to fill? How long does the selection process take?

I see between 600-900 films per year. Sundance shows around 120 features. The selection process lasts all year long... as soon as the festival ends I begin scouting films for the next year. However, the crunch time goes from September through November. This is our most intensive time where we are watching submissions for most of the day....and night.

Do you make a living on your festival work or do you have to supplement your income in other ways?

My job with Sundance is a full-time position...but I do supplement my income by doing puppet shows at children's birthday parties.

What do you see the role of a film festival within the overall film industry? How has it changed in the past five years?

Film festivals are a vital component to the development and cultivation of audiences for non-studio produced films. They provide a context for the range of films being produced in the world that expands the audience for them. The industry's utilization of them is constantly shifting and evolving and always will. Festivals function as a market and as a promotional tool. Festivals haven't changed much in the last five years....but they might in the next five as they explore new ways of using technology to further connect films with audiences.

What are the most common mistakes people make when sending you a film to consider? What are your pet peeves about the process?

Thinking that they have to "know someone" to get their film accepted to the festival. It's much more exciting for us to discover films cold than to have someone tell us about them first.

Hypothetically speaking - because people ask this question all the time - You've seen film X, you love film X, but you're not showing film X in your festival. Why not?


Because I didn't have room for it. I see way more movies that I would love to show in my festival than I have space for. At a certain point you have to make difficult decisions and cut some very deserving films. That's why I loved having Cinevegas [which he also programmed] when it was around. Now I happily recommend films to other festivals.

What guidelines do you follow when selecting films? I don't just mean the rules laid down by the festival you work for, but what are your personal criteria?

I don't have a set criteria for what I am looking for. Rather I am open to anything and am delighted when I see something that surprises me.

If people are to remember your programming work for only one film, what would you want that film to be? What is your proudest discovery as a programmer?

I would say one of the films that I am happiest about was one that I almost missed. In the 90's I saw a bizarre short film called WHAT IS IT? by Crispin Glover that I personally loved but didn't have the balls to program. That decision haunted me for many years but I was fortunately given a second chance. Crispin had done some more work on the film and resubmitted it as a feature in 2005. This time I jumped all over the chance and proudly programmed it in our Midnight section where it did everything that I hoped it would do....it shocked, amazed, dumbfounded, offended and intoxicated people. It also made me fell like I had finally grown a pair.
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