The Egyptian Theater at the Sundance Film Festival

Work Culture

Tell your story, not theirs: The case against conventional wisdom in film


Published on January 23, 2018

In the film industry, there’s a lot of pressure to appeal to the broadest possible audience. Make sure the movie isn’t too niche, conventional wisdom says. Take care not to alienate men, and to include characters that will connect with a mainstream audience.

But at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, many creators are ignoring this advice. They’re telling more personal stories for more specific audiences—making movies about women and people of color. And best of all, these decisions are paying off. More and more, the strength of an authentic story is beating the conventional formula. It’s a theme that came up frequently at the “Power of Story: Culture Shift,” a panel presented by Dropbox.

Here are some of the most powerful moments from the panel. Issa Rae goes her own way

Panelists at "Power of Story: Culture Shift"
Panelists at "Power of Story: Culture Shift"

Issa Rae got a dose of conventional wisdom when she was making Insecure—a show about modern-day black women in Los Angeles. She was told the script needed to do more to appeal to a white audience, but she rejected the advice. “It’s more important to be authentic,” she said. The show was “born out of my frustration of not seeing my friends, people like me [on TV].” Issa stuck to her instincts, and wrote a show specifically for her own friends and family. Today, Insecure is one of HBO’s most popular series.

Octavia Spencer finds depth in Oscar-winning role

Like Issa, fellow panelist Octavia Spencer faced her own share of pushback after starring in The Help (2011). When she took on the role of Minny Jackson—a black maid in the 1960s American South—some felt her talents would have been better served playing a different part. Wouldn’t a black woman playing a doctor or lawyer be better, the critics argued, than the stereotype of a housemaid?

Octavia believes these critics were missing the point. She said there was a depth and truth to Minny, that even if maids didn’t have a high status on paper, Minny was part of a group who “held the country on their backs.” The role had a quiet, undeniable strength. The film would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations, including a best supporting actress win for Octavia.

Megan Smith highlights how far we still have to go

Panelist Megan Smith—former U.S. chief technology officer and CEO of shift7—highlighted a giant study of more than 2,000 high-grossing films. The journal broke down just how much more representation men receive in film compared to women. In 82% of the movies in the study, men had the majority of the dialogue. And in hundreds of those films, women hardly spoke at all. As a result, it’s become easy to find examples of mostly male, successful films, while the number of mostly female films—successful or not—is much, much lower.

Niche projects are reaching broad audiences

What “The Power of Story” panel showed, however, is that these so-called risky projects haven’t suffered from their specificity. Issa says she regularly hears from older white men who love Insecure, something she didn’t expect. Panelist Christine Vachon—an industry veteran and award-winning producer—has seen similar success with bold films like Carol and Still Alice.

Everyone has a unique flavor of creative energy

Creative energy types at the Sundance Film Festival
Creative energy types at the Sundance Film Festival

The panel served as a good reminder that we all bring different talent to our work, and different stories to our projects. It’s when we respect this diversity that we do our most meaningful, effective work. That’s why when we talk about creative energy at Dropbox, we know that for some, that means “curious energy;” for others, “introverted energy;” and still others, “feminist energy.”

Here’s to the individual creators at the Sundance Film Festival who know exactly the stories they need to tell. Let’s keep the independent energy flowing.

Watch highlights from the panel: More Sundance: Why we’re proud to celebrate independent filmmaking. Eight ways to use Dropbox when you make your next film.