From First-Time Filmmaker to Sundance Juror

Producer and screenwriter Sev Ohanian reflects on the Sundance experience, from being a first-time filmmaker to his latest exploits as a juror for the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize.

By Michaela Wagner January 25, 2019

Sev Ohanian speaks at the Producer's Brunch during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Ohanian was awarded the Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Award.

Six years ago, producer and screenwriter Sev Ohanian found himself at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival as a first-timer. Beyond his wildest expectations, Ohanian was there as the co-producer on a little heard of feature film by a first-time director. "It was basically the first real film I worked on after film school and we were all fairly young and early on in our careers," recalls Ohanian. "The project itself was very challenging and we never imagined getting into Sundance, so just being accepted was a dream come true. I'll never forget the night of the premiere. We had this amazing screening and a fantastic standing ovation. I had so many tears in my eyes." And just like that, Sundance worked its magic.

After the Sundance premiere, Ohanian's world turned completely upside down as word of his team's film spread through the festival like wildfire. "I remember being at party and hearing people raving about the film through the restroom stalls," says Ohanian. "Maybe I was naive, but it didn't make sense to me. We were these fresh filmmakers suddenly being courted by big-time distributors looking to buy the film." Ohanian's first-time Sundance experience got its fairytale ending at the awards ceremony when Fruitvale Station nabbed not just the Audience Award, but was crowned the 2013 Grand Jury Prize winner. Since his whirlwind ride with Fruitvale Station, he's been back to the festival every year, including as an executive producer on Results (2015), a producer on The Intervention (2016), and as co-writer and producer on Searching (2018), which won both the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Jury Prize and the NEXT Audience Award. Ohanian was also awarded the Sundance Institute | Amazon Studios Producers Award for his work on Searching. 

Ohanian (4th from the left) at Sundance 2013 with Fruitvale Station.

Now a Sundance veteran of sorts, Ohanian is excited to be playing the rookie again, this time as a juror for the Alfred P. Sloan Prize. With a panel of four other jurors, Ohanian has been hard at work ahead of the festival watching films to find a standout that seamlessly intertwines science and technology into a cinematic story. The jury process and the specific criteria are, of course, a closely-guarded secret of the Sundance Institute, but Ohanian freely admits to having thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of the festival. "The jury for this particular award is unique in that it includes both filmmakers and scientists. I think the scientists have had some very insightful and interesting things to say about the films and I loved hearing their perspective as we deliberated," says Ohanian. "It's absolutely made me see the festival in a different light. The juries are filled with filmmakers and it's nice to know that the people judging the movies know very intimately what a challenge it is to make movies." In case you're wondering, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (directed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) about a boy in Malawi who helps his village by building a wind turbine after reading about them in a library book, was chosen by Ohanian and his fellow jurors for this year's Alfred P. Sloan Prize.  

With his jury duties complete, Ohanian will enjoy a slightly more laid-back Sundance experience this year than his previous sojourns in Park City. Like most festival-goers he has a long list of films he's itching to see, at the top is The Farewell, directed by Lulu Wang, about a Chinese family that keeps their grandmother's lung cancer diagnosis a secret from her and arranges a wedding as an excuse for everyone to convene and give their last farewells to their matriarch. "Apart from Lulu being a good friend of mine and the film being inspired by her life, it should be really great," says Ohanian. "I missed an opportunity to see an early cut to give notes, but I’m actually more excited because selfishly I get to see the movie for the first time when it’s fully complete with a live audience.”

While he feels very lucky to have been so successful at Sundance, for Ohanian, the magic of the festival really comes down to being surrounded by so many talented filmmakers from around the world. "A lot of people don't want to come to Sundance till they have a film in the festival, but you shouldn't wait because it's such a great opportunity," he says. "The experience of being in Park City with so many filmmakers is worth the price of admission." And, he adds, those invaluable connections aren't just made at exclusive parties. "I can honestly say there's never been a party or premiere I've gone to that's been more fulfilling than just bumping into someone in the street. Seriously, I literally bumped into someone on the street my first year, we exchanged info, and ended up working together on a film later on. That's the beauty of Sundance."

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