Sundance Film Festival: Winners, History, and Importance

Sundance Film Festival - Scenics
View of the Eygptian Theatre during the 2006 Sundance Film Festival on Main Street in Park City, Utah.

Scott Halleran / Getty Images

The Sundance Film Festival is a U.S.-based film festival in Park City, Utah, held in January every year. Over the past four decades, it has become the premiere independent film festival in the United States and has launched the careers of many notable filmmakers. Several winning films in the festival have gone on to later win Academy Awards and other major film awards.

Did You Know?

The highest-grossing film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival is Jordan Peele's 2017 horror film Get Out, which grossed $255.4 million worldwide.

Founders and Location

The inaugural Sundance Film Festival was held in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival by founders John Earle and Sterling Van Wagenen. Actor Robert Redford served as chairman of the inaugural festival and has remained closely associated with the event. During the first several years, the Utah/US Film Festival was held in Salt Lake City, Utah, before moving to Park City in 1981, where it remains today.

Redford's company, Sundance Institute (named after Redford's character in the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), took over management of the festival in the mid-1980s. The 1990 festival was the first to feature the Sundance Film Festival name. In recent years, the festival has brought tens of thousands of visitors to Park City annually, including representatives from dozens of studios and distributors.

2019 Sundance Film Festival - Day One Press Conference
President and Founder, Sundance Institute, Robert Redford attends the "2019 Sundance Film Festival - Day One Press Conference" at Egyptian Theatre on January 24, 2019 in Park City, Utah.  Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images

Notable Winners

Over its 40-year-history, the Sundance Film Festival has featured a number award-winning films that would go on to gain more recognition and success.

1985 Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: Blood Simple

Directorial debut of the Coen Brothers (Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski) and also features director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black, Get Shorty) as cinematographer.

1988 Special Jury Recognition: The Brave Little Toaster

The independently-produced animated feature The Brave Little Toaster has not only become a cult classic, but it also involved an incredible list of animation talent who would go on to work on many Disney and Pixar classics, including Joe Ranft, who was a story writer on Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Toy Story.

1989 Audience Award Dramatic: sex, lies and videotape

Feature film directorial debut of Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean's Eleven). sex, lies and videotape later won the Palme d'Or and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Most importantly, it put Sundance on the map as a festival that could successfully launch award-winning films.

1993 Audience Award Dramatic: El Mariachi

Directorial debut of Robert Rodriguez (Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, Sin City)

1994 Filmmakers Trophy Dramatic: Clerks

Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran in "Clerks," which tied with "Fresh" for the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. Miramax

Directorial debut of writer/director Kevin Smith (Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma)

1994 Audience Award Documentary: Hoop Dreams

Sundance has also launched the success of a number of acclaimed documentaries. Hoop Dreams is about two Chicago high school students who attempt to become professional basketball players. It received widespread acclaim, and in 2014 returned to the Sundance Film Festival to celebrate its 20th anniversary.

1995 Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: The Brothers McMullen

Directorial debut of writer/director Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York, The Groomsmen)

1996 Special Jury Recognition: When We Were Kings

This documentary, directed by Leon Gast, is about the 1974 heavyweight championship title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. When We Were Kings would later win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

1998 Directing Award Dramatic: Pi

Directorial debut of Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan)

2000 Directing Award Dramatic: Girlfight

Girlfight also tied for the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic. Girlfight is also the directorial debut of Karyn Kusama (Aeon Flux, Destroyer)

2001 Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award: Memento

Second feature film directed by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, Dunkirk)

2003 Audience Award Dramatic: The Station Agent

Directorial debut of Tom McCarthy (Spotlight, The Visitor)

2003 Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: American Splendor

This adaptation of the long-running independent comic book series was later nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

2004 Directing Award Documentary: Super Size Me

2004 Sundance Film Festival
Morgan Spurlock, winner of the "Directing Award - Documentary" for "Super Size Me." 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Fred Hayes / Getty Images

Directorial debut of Morgan Spurlock (The Greatest Movie Ever Sold). Super Size Me was later nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

2007 World Cinema Audience Award Dramatic: Once

“Falling Slowly” from Once later won the Academy Award for Best Original Song

2009 Audience Award Dramatic: Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire

Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire was one of the most award-winning films in Sundance Film Festival history, also winning the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Special Jury Prize for Acting (award to Mo'Nique, who later would win an Academy Award for her performance in this film).

2010 Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: Winter's Bone

Winter's Bone also won the Sundance Film Festival Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. The film would later be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Jennifer Lawrence.

2012 Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild also won the Sundance Film Festival Excellence in Cinematography Award: U.S. Dramatic. The film would later be nominated for four Academy Awards, including Quvenzhané Wallis for Best Actress in a Leading Role, who became the youngest-ever nominee in the category.

2012 World Cinema Audience Award Documentary:Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man also won the Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize for its Celebration of the Artistic Spirit. The film would later win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

2013 U.S. Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station also won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic. The film is the directorial debut of Ryan Coogler (Creed, Black Panther)

2014 Grand Jury Prize Dramatic: Whiplash

Whiplash also won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award: Dramatic. The film would later win three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons.

Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out (2017). © 2016 Universal Pictures

Other Notable Sundance Film Festival Movies

Though these films did not win any awards at the Sundance Film Festival (many of them were screened out of competition), they all became very notable after playing at the festival:

  • Slacker (1991)
  • Reservoir Dogs (1992)
  • Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
  • The Blair Witch Project (1999)
  • Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
  • Saw (2004)
  • Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
  • (500) Days of Summer (2009)
  • Manchester by the Sea (2016)
  • The Big Sick (2017)
  • Get Out (2017)