10 Directors Who Got Their Big Break at the Sundance Film Festival

In 1978, the Utah/Us Film Festival was born in Salt Lake City, founded by Sterling Van Wageren and Robert Redford. The idea behind it was to showcase American-made indie films. After a change of venue to Sundance and with a new name in 1984, it became what people have known since: the biggest independent cinema festival in America.



The festival became the perfect showcase for young directors to prove their talent, making the Sundance Film Festival the breakout story in many great filmmakers’ history. Today, the festival breaks attendance records every year, and every non-discovered filmmaker in the world sends their work to Sundance to get their big break. The indie cinema that raised Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Steven Soderbergh wouldn’t exist without Sundance, and their careers and incredible films might never have happened. Here are some success stories of great directors who got their big break at the festival.

10 Darren Aronofsky – Pi (1998)



Release Date
July 10, 1998

Sean Gullette , Mark Margolis , Ben Shenkman , Pamela Hart , Stephen Pearlman , Samia Shoaib

Darren Aronofsky arrived at Sundance with a bang, as his feature debut Pi, was surprising, weird, mesmerizing, black-and-white craziness of a movie, one of the most unique the festival had seen in years, so much so, that the director won the Dramatic Directing Award for it.

He Leaves No One Indifferent

Since then, the director has proven his talent in his best films. Aronofsky’s movies leave no one indifferent. Either you love them, or you hate them. Yet he managed to work with some of the great actors in Hollywood, and some of his films have earned Academy Award nominations and wins for them. Natalie Portman won for her performance in Black Swan, and Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei got nominations for The Wrestler, and most recently. Brendan Fraser won Best Actor for his role in The Whale.

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9 Nicole Holofcener – Walking and Talking (1996)

Nicole Holofcener’s career has always had a link with Sundance. She took her first short Angry there. She developed her first feature, Walking and Talking, at the Sundance Director’s Lab. So, of course, once she shot the film, she took it back to the festival. The film earned her a Grand Jury Prize Nomination (Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse won) and was the breakout role for indie darling Catherine Keener.

Holofcener Chronicles Women in Strange Moments of Their Life

The director has kept working steadily in both TV and films, and her career picked up in the 2010s with Enough Said, with a very surprising and vulnerable performance from James Gandolfini. Her stories are always about women in strange moments of their lives, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus has become her partner in crime to tell them. Their last collaboration was last year’s You Hurt My Feelings.

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8 Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station (2013)

The most recent director on the list who used Sundance as his big break is Ryan Coogler and his Fruitvale Station. The film won both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award for the story of Oscar Grant, a real-life person who died because of police brutality. The film was also a breakout for Michael B. Jordan. After Sundance, the duo received enough juice to convince Sylvester Stallone that they were the right people to revive the Rocky franchise through Creed.

A Box Office Director Who Keeps His Style

Coogler might be one of the few filmmakers who has been able to become a box office director with incredibly successful films that still feel like Ryan Coogler films. That has happened with Creed and also the MCU’s Black Panther. The director has continued working with Marvel, but his next projects will bring him back to his origins, telling Black stories in Wrong Answer and Scenes for Minors.

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7 Richard Linklater – Slacker (1991)

Slacker poster


Release Date
April 21, 1990

97 min

Richard Linklater is another director who owes some of his success to Sundance, where he showed his debut feature, Slacker, a plot-less movie about slackers in Austin that proved the director was much more interested in characters than plot. The film earned the young director a nomination in the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic category (Todd Haynes’ Poison won), proving he was a director to look for.

Linklater Is Obsessed with Time and Subjectivity

Linklater followed Slacker with Dazed and Confused, and from there on, he’s made some incredible movies. The director is obsessed with time and its subjectivity and loves his characters, creating a line for himself that not many have followed. His Before trilogy and his experimental cinema, like shooting Boyhood in 12 years, are what people might remember most, but every one of his films has some moments worth the price of the cinema ticket.

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6 Ava DuVernay – Middle of Nowhere (2012)

Ava DuVernay might be one of the latest examples of how Sundance can change your career. She won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award for the film Middle of Nowhere, a small story about a nurse whose husband is in prison in Compton and her conflict between staying in her past or moving on. DuVernay’s movie not only won awards at Sundance, but in every festival available, showing producers she was a talent to bet on.

The First Black Female Filmmaker to Direct a Best Picture Nominated Film

Those awards allowed her to get enough finance to do her dream project, Selma, for which she became the first Black female filmmaker to direct a Best Picture-nominated film. Since then, DuVarney has been mixing documentaries and indie with bigger productions like A Wrinkle in Time and using her platform to talk about Black experiences.

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Related: Every Ava DuVernay Film, Ranked

5 Wes Anderson – Bottle Rocket (1993)

We might not have the films of Wes Anderson without the Sundance Film Festival. That might sound like an exaggeration, but the fact is that screening a 13-minute, black-and-white, short film version of Bottle Rocket at the festival got him discovered by James L. Brooks. The famous filmmaker decided it was worth a shot and produced a feature version of the short. That became Bottle Rocket, while also mentoring Anderson and his co-writer, Owen Wilson.

A One-of-a-Kind Director

Since then, Anderson has become one of the greatest one-of-a-kind directors in Hollywood, as his style is so unique (symmetry, pastel colors, melancholic stories) that audiences know it’s an Anderson film with just a frame. His movies are like no other, and the same happens with his characters and the actors who play them. Without him, the careers of Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and many others would be completely different.

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4 Paul Thomas Anderson – Cigarettes & Coffee (1993)

The short film above, Cigarettes & Coffee, was enough for 23-year-old Paul Thomas Anderson to get into the Sundance Feature Film Program, where he got help transforming it into a movie, which became his first: Hard Eight. His case is a bit different from most on this list, as he went through the Sundance Labs, workshops that help young filmmakers improve their ideas, and make them into features. With the help of the festival, he wrote the script and shot it the next year. And the rest is history.

Telling Stories About the Human Condition

Anderson has become one of the most unique directors in the industry. He has an incredible vision and technique, loving multi-character stories like his hero, Robert Altman. He’s also interested in the human condition in all its categories. Be it greed in There Will Be Blood, control in The Master, or co-dependence in Phantom Thread. The director has nine films, and every time he releases a new one, it’s a must-see for audiences.

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3 The Coen Brothers – Blood Simple (1985)

In 1984, the Coen Brothers were the second-unit directors of Sam Raimi’s films. All that changed when their first film, Blood Simple, won the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic Award at the second Sundance ever, in 1985. That award put them on producers’ and critics’ radars, who liked their dark humor and how the film had some Hitchcock in it. That award and festival changed their lives and careers forever.

They Dissect American Culture

Since then, the duo has made some amazing films where they dissect American culture, playing with genres, creating unique characters, having some dark humor, and becoming two of the best writers and directors in Hollywood. They’ve won four Academy Awards with films like Fargo and No Country for Old Men, but every one of their films has something interesting. Be it a line of dialogue, a weird character, a gory scene, or a shot that tells as much or more than any word could.

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2 Steven Soderbergh – sex, lies, and videotape (1989)

Steven Soderbergh was one of the first talents to win an award at Sundance and then hit it big in the industry. So much so, that critic Roger Ebert called him “the poster boy for the Sundance generation.” The director was 26 when he went to the festival with his debut feature sex, lies, and videotape and won the festival’s Audience award. The story of sex, desire, and being in a rut in your marriage went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, proving Sundance was a great avenue for young filmmakers to get discovered.

One of the Most Eclectic and Interesting Directors in Hollywood

After this film, Soderbergh directed some experimental films without much success. Since Out of Sight, the director has proven he can make small and big budget films, shot on a camera and an iPhone, TV shows and films, the Ocean’s trilogy, And Everything’s Fine, a documentary about Spalding Gray. He’s become one of the most eclectic, interesting, experimental mainstream directors in Hollywood. And it all started at Sundance.

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Related: Best Steven Soderbergh Movies, Ranked

1 Quentin Tarantino – Reservoir Dogs (1992)

The story of Quentin Tarantino has been told many times: he was working in a video store when he wrote the script of Reservoir Dogs in three weeks. Harvey Keitel loved it and helped fund the film. With this movie about suited-up robbers who talk like no one before and a story with non-linear filmmaking, Tarantino went to Sundance in 1992, and his life changed forever. The film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic Award (Alexandre Rockwell’s In the Soup won), and his movie was the talk of the town and started making a name for the writer and director.

The Start of the Quentin Tarantino Myth

That was the start of the Quentin Tarantino myth, and his talent and personality did the rest. After that, Pulp Fiction, a movie about peculiar gangsters with unique dialogue, created its own genre and many knock-offs. The director has become loved by both critics and the box office, and every one of his films is a unique experience. Creating films with essential moments that audiences still talk about all these years later. Without the Sundance Film Festival, we might’ve never had Tarantino or all the other directors on the list, and because of that, the festival is still worth it all these years later.

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