'Dear White People' joins a list of Sundance features that started out small

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Image Credit: Ashley Beireis Nguyen

When Justin Simien’s college-based satire Dear White People premieres Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival, it will come with a built-in fan base. The film is not a star-studded affair, nor is Simien a household name in the independent world. But Simien can claim a cadre of followers one million strong due to the inventive concept trailer he created in June 2012.

Put together out of necessity (turns out, financiers aren’t dying to give cash to an untested filmmaker for a black satire when the last one to make any noise was Spike Lee’s 1989’s debut Do the Right Thing) the Dear White People trailer, which you can watch here, generated a million views on YouTube and caught the attention of both CNN and The Washington Post.

From there things got moving: Producers jumped aboard. Financing followed.

Now Simien, who began his career in Hollywood as a film publicist, is at Sundance hoping to make good on the promise of his trailer — debuting his feature film with the same name and concept, albeit a somewhat different cast.

“There is no way in hell this would have happened without the concept trailer,” says Simien. “I never had to go in and pitch the story. They knew what it was. Now I have a movie no one has seen and we also have a fan base.”

The 30-year old filmmaker says that his attention to detail on the trailer was paramount to its success. “The budget of the trailer was $2,000 but we couldn’t make it look like it was shot in Bubba’s backyard,” he says. “We worked really hard to get the costumes right, the locations right, every frame of that trailer perfect. It had to bust through the clutter. Otherwise, why do it?”

Simien isn’t the first to use a short piece of material as a calling card to get a feature made. Damien Chazelle’s opening night film Whiplash, which just sold to Sony Pictures Classics for a reported $3 million, also began life in an abbreviated form. The Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons-starrer was first a 15-minute short — one long, intense scene between Simmons playing a hard-nosed conductor and actor Johnny Simmons in the part of the perfectionist drummer. Check out a clip of the short here.

“It was hard to convince people to put up money about a jazz drummer,” says Chazelle, whose film was inspired by his own experience in a competitive ensemble in high school with a hard-lined conductor. “It was my inexperience combined with the subject matter. It was a tough sell. Even with a low-budget movie it’s tricky. The idea was to take a scene from it.”

That scene went on to win the 2013 short competition, enabling the 28-year old filmmaker to spend the last year working at a breakneck speed–giving himself a case of whiplash–turning his personal tale about his time as a drummer at a music conservatory into a feature.

“Everything changed with the short,” says Chazelle, days before the festival began. “It was hard [for others] to visualize the world I wanted to create. It was hard to imagine the kind of tone it would be. The biggest question was could you maintain that kind of tension in a world that on the surface seems tension-free. The short pushed them over the edge.”

The year prior to Whiplash’s win, director Cutter Hodierne’s short about Somali pirates titled Fishing Without Nets was the victor of the Sundance short competition. His 15-minute movie (available here) was initially created as part of the filmmaker’s research into Africa and served as a learning tool for the filmmaker who had to understand the complexities of navigating the complicated world of Kenyan politics in order to make the movie.

“I’m not an established name who can go out and sell a concept. I had to go and show someone what I could do” says Hodierne, 27. “But creatively it was the best training we could have got on how to pull off a feature. It became sort of our research and development trip for all sides.”

The short led to what Hodiene calls the “water bottle” tour of all the studios before Vice Films and Think Media came aboard to finance the low-budget film.

The three movies join others debuting this week at Sundance that began life in short form. Kat Cander’s Hellion, which debuted Friday night to a strong response, was initially a six-minute Sundance-selected short. Sara Colangelo’s feature film debut Little Accidents starring Elizabeth Banks began its life as a short film that debuted back in 2010.

Whether created as marketing ploys or as proof of concept of aspiring filmmakers’ talent, the short is nothing new. What is new is how the Internet can develop fan bases for these artists before a single frame of their features have been shot.

For those of you wanting a leg up on fresh new talent, the best place to look may be Sundance’s short competition. Those artists could be back soon with movies of their own.

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