Sundance Film Festival programmers Heidi Zwicker and Basil Tsiokos | Buzz Blog

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Sundance Film Festival programmers Heidi Zwicker and Basil Tsiokos

Veteran programmers talk about the challenges of putting together a festival slate

Posted By on December 6, 2023, 11:00 AM

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On Dec. 6, the Sundance Institute announced its slate of films for the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, running Jan. 18 – 28. Senior programmers Heidi Zwicker and Basil Tsiokos spoke with City Weekly about the challenges and responsibilities of putting together the festival lineup. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

CW: The festival has a new director this year, Eugene Hernandez. To what extent does the director set the tone for the programming?
Heidi Zwicker: Eugene definitely has a vision for the festival. Even though he’s never worked for the festival, he’s been part of the festival for such a long time [as a journalist], and has such an appreciation for what we do. But it’s not like he’s going to come in and re-write everything.
Basil Tsiokos: He has defined his film career because of Sundance. While he certainly has his ideas, as far as what he’d like to see, I don’t think he’s changing things.

click to enlarge Sundance programmer Heidi Zwicker
  • Sundance programmer Heidi Zwicker
CW: In the last few years, Sundance reduced the number of films in the competition categories from 16 to 10 in each. Does that make the job of programming those categories even harder?
HZ: It definitely makes it more painful for us, and it does emphasize how intentional we have to be. Someone outside the festival might not watch all 10 [films in each category], but we really need to think about how they work as a whole. We have to be more exacting about those choices, how each one has a unique voice and place in the festival. It’s always hard in the end making those decisions.
BT: We all have to painfully let go of films we love.

CW: For those who don’t know, how does the process work in terms of who watches the films, does someone always watch every film to completion, and the like?
HZ: The first person to watch a submission watches it beginning to end. That’s how it works in our process. For me what’s really important is, I always ask the person I think is going to respond the most to watch it next. I’m never handing a film to my colleague thinking, “I want to kill this film’s chances.” We’ve worked together for a long time, so I know people’s tastes. What we’re hoping to find is, are we the right place for the film. And ultimately, for the feature film program, all of the programmers watch all of the finalist films.
BT: We do try to operate from that spirit of generosity. We try to give each film the best shot possible. I might focus on documentaries, but I’m watching all of the fiction that comes through the end of the process. We probably brought around 140 films to that final process that we weighed in on and debated.

CW: Being invited to Sundance can definitely change an artist’s life. Do you feel a sense of pressure and responsibility, being that “yes/no” person?
BT: We take it seriously, for sure. That’s why we go out of our way to give it the best shot possible. There’s a lot of effort, energy and resources behind these films, and we want to respect that. The pressure is there, for sure. We’ve seen what playing at the festival does for people, but ultimately, we have to take that part of our humanity away from us and say, “Is this film working for us, and what we want for our program.” Because there are so many of us weighing in, we feel pretty good.
Heidi: I have to choose not to think of it that way, and think about are, we the best place for this film, and is it the best film for us. We have to make it purpose-driven. This film, do you think it will do best at our festival, or could it have another life elsewhere?

CW: As you’re looking through submissions, do you recognize themes or trends emerging?
BT: We’ve said this before many times, but we don’t program to a theme. We respond to the films that are coming to us. Sometimes there are just happy connections that we just wouldn’t have look for. We might notice after programming, “Oh wow, these films do speak to each other.” But we don’t want films all to look the same or feel the same. On the documentary side, and one fiction, there are multiple films dealing with technology’s impact on our lives, and [artificial intelligence].
HZ: There’s the things we see as we’re programming, but without fail, afterwards we didn’t even notice, “Oh wait, there’s this other thread that’s really cool.”

click to enlarge Sundance programmer Basil Tsiokos - VIA X
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  • Sundance programmer Basil Tsiokos
CW: After experiencing these films initially largely in isolation, what is it like when you get to see them with an audience?
BT: It can be very emotionally affecting. I’ve caught myself needing to stop the emotions to start a Q&A; I can’t speak right now, but I have to because it’s my job. It’s really quite rousing to see the responses that the audiences have for a film. This was something we’ve talked and argued about in a room, but then we get to shepherd it out into the world.
HZ: I think the filmmakers have had this experience, hearing people laughing when you didn’t think they were going to laugh. One of my absolute favorite things is to hover outside of a film and listen to reactions, which might be very different than we thought and anticipated.

CW: Festival-goers and press like me are watching so many films during the festival, and having to turn around our reactions so quickly. Do you wish sometimes it were possible for people to sit with movies longer, especially difficult or challenging ones, before having to share a response?
HZ: It’s something I’ve noticed at least, especially in the age of social media. You walk out of the theater, and there’s already an impression out there. Some of our films are very challenging and provocative, and that is tough.
BT: When we’re evaluating films [as programmers], sometimes we have to be, “I have to sit on this for a bit.” We do this thing of going around the room, asking “yes or no,” and sometimes the answer is “I don’t know.” It is difficult sometimes when a film gets judged too quickly, and we hope its champions will emerge.

CW: There are always certain films at a festival that will get more attention, because of familiar actors or filmmakers. What is your pitch to encourage folks to see films that might fall outside of those areas?
HZ: I really feel strongly about having people check out films in the World Dramatic category. When I talk to someone, and I find out what they love, I’ll know what to recommend to them. It’s a slate of films every year that we’re really excited about.
BT: I echo that on the World Cinema Documentary side. We do want to draw attention to films that might fall under the radar. At the Megaplex Theatres, there are going to be themed nights at: African diaspora, Latinx, LGBTQ+. We want to direct audiences towards films that we think they’ll like and appreciate. CW

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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