Sundance Institute: New Website and Digital Platform Leverage Pivotal Web Services and Cloud Foundry to Enable Incredible Storytelling

December 1, 2016
"The senior leadership and stakeholders at Sundance all agreed that we needed to create the right digital infrastructure, and a partner like Pivotal could help us get there over the long-term." 


Founded in 1981 by Robert Redford to support independence, risk-taking, and new voices in American film, the nonprofit organization is headquartered in Park City, UT and has offices in Los Angeles and New York City. Each year in late January, Sundance Institute hosts the world-famous 10-day Sundance Film Festival in Park City. In addition, the Institute offers programs and services all year long to engage with artists. It has a staff of 150 employees who work to provide 24 residential labs, grants of more than $2.5 million, and ongoing mentoring programs that support more than 350 artists every year.

Over the last three decades, Sundance Institute has created an amazing community of artists and people who love culture, but according to Jessica Kantor, Associate Director of Marketing at the Sundance Institute, senior leaders recently recognized that the Institute could create even stronger bonds by connecting with the community in a digital environment that complements its traditional physical environment. Their goal is to provide a more appealing and innovative web experience and establish a vibrant digital brand to more fully engage with the artists and supporters who love independent storytelling.

“As an organization, we want to start building a lot of fun ways to connect artists to educational opportunities and to each other for support and community, and we also want to make it easier for the general community to connect with our body of incredible work,” she says. “But first we needed to take a hard look at how to build the infrastructure of our website to move forward into the future.”


Connecting Marketing Front-End and Back-End Systems and Leveraging Technology to Better Serve Constituents

Sundance Institute takes advantage of technology every day in almost every area, from budgeting to archiving old films. But, like many 30 year-old organizations, staff members still use older technology in critical areas. Different databases are siloed and don’t communicate with each other, and not all film archives are digitized. This makes it almost impossible to easily leverage information about films and other projects or to connect all the data associated with specific artists or supporters.

For example, artists early in their careers might have applied to take part in the Institute’s film shorts lab and then made short films and submitted them to the Sundance Festival. Over the years, they might have moved on to screenwriting and feature filmmaking with Sundance and then ultimately decided to become donors. While all historical data about artists is stored in various databases, it is not easy to connect the information or access it.

“We have all this information from various touch points, but it isn’t integrated so we haven’t sent the message that we remember our artists or supporters or what’s important to them when they’ve come to the website,” observes Kantor.

In addition, the Sundance Institute website has had functionality and usability issues. During the Sundance Film Festival, web traffic is typically at least triple the levels experienced during the rest of the year, but in the past it wasn’t easy to scale the system back once the Festival was over. Until recently, some people also found the site overly difficult to navigate to buy tickets for the Festival or to apply to submit films for consideration. During the rest of the year, many constituents were simply unaware of events and projects occurring at Sundance Institute, and the site also didn’t do a good job of promoting Sundance’s wealth of industry news and other compelling content.

Further, senior leaders know that there are new technologies, such as Kickstarter, that they aren’t utilizing to engage with artists and supporters. They also aren’t capitalizing on new marketing techniques or social media. Stakeholders are keenly aware that connecting with the Sundance brand today is just not as good of an experience as it could be—and they are relying on a new digital platform to remedy the situation.


Work with Pivotal Labs to Design a New Website to Improve Community Engagement

To translate Sundance Institute’s digital vision into reality, senior leaders decided phase one should target the launch of a new website front-end. After evaluating a variety of companies, Pivotal was brought in because of successful engagements with the Pivotal Labs team Kantor had experienced in a previous job. She knew the company had the design discipline and skills required to create a new responsive website from the ground up—and put into place the foundation to accommodate future mobile and digital expansion plans.

Kantor says, “The senior leadership and stakeholders at Sundance all agreed that we needed to create the right digital infrastructure, and a partner like Pivotal could help us get there over the long-term.”

The Agile Development approach practiced by Pivotal Labs minimized gaps between design and development, streamlining the entire project. During design, Pivotal experts helped to identify the most important users who accessed the Sundance Institute’s website. They then analyzed these users’ experience with major user flows and made proposals about how best to revamp and organize the site to better meet user needs and improve brand engagement. Next, they used an iterative process that incorporated user experience/user interface design and testing, visual design and product framing to design the home page and other key core pages. They wanted to ensure that the pages were visually appealing and functional for PCs, mobile phones, and tablets. Pivotal experts very quickly followed design and used javascript and HTML5 to actually build the key features for the front-end. They deployed the new Sundance Institute browser-based customer-facing web application on Pivotal Web Services powered by Cloud Foundry, the open source Platform as-a-Service.

Now, because the new system is cloud-based and horizontally scalable, Sundance Institute senior leaders are confident that the platform has the capacity and flexibility to incorporate planned new features and future growth.


Identify and Gain Insights about Users Visiting the Website to Better Meet Their Needs

It was very valuable for Sundance staff to learn that the most important users served by the Sundance Institute website are program alumni, independent artists who may be interested in applying to Sundance programs, independent film and theatre enthusiasts, and donors. Kantor and her team also gained some surprising and critical insights. For example, some independent filmmakers who might potentially apply for Sundance programs reported that they didn’t visit the Sundance Institute website very often because they didn’t find it helpful. They weren’t aware that the site actually provides a thriving community and other valuable resources to support them. This feedback was critical input during the design process to improve content targeted to these specific users.

Simplify Site Navigation to Enhance User Engagement with Informative Content, and Streamline E-Commerce and Program Submissions

With a new streamlined design that simplified top level navigation from over 10 headings down to four, users are much more engaged when they come to the site. Sundance events are now the focal point to keep the Sundance community informed about events in their cities. The site also more effectively showcases artists, interesting projects and other relevant content to appeal to industry enthusiasts. Users report that it is much easier to purchase tickets and submit program applications. According to Kantor, web sales are up, and many Sundance programs expect to see increased program submissions.

Dynamically Scale Up or Down to Meet Web Traffic Demands

During several key points during the year, web traffic triples on the Sundance Institute website, such as when films are announced for the Sundance Film Festival and during the 10 days of the Festival itself. Before, during busy periods, the legacy system would reach capacity very quickly, leading to slow performance. The Institute was also required to maintain expensive server capacity even during quieter times of the year, which was a costly economic drain. Now with Pivotal Web Services and Cloud Foundry, it is easy to spin up additional servers—or reduce server capacity— depending on website traffic loads. In addition, the new website always loads quickly.


The Sundance Institute is very pleased with the response it has received to its new streamlined website, but this is just the beginning of the journey to establish a vibrant digital brand to more fully capitalize on the Institute’s independent storytelling. Senior leaders expect that one day, back-end databases will become fully integrated with front-end systems so that it is easy to access archived films and all the historical data about artists and supporters to provide better user experiences. Social media capabilities also will be incorporated to encourage community involvement by enabling filmmakers, viewers and other like-minded people to view digital content and connect in conversations about their shared interest in independent films and theatre.

“The easier flow and more positive experiences for users on our website are already making it more exciting to engage with us,” says Kantor. “And the flexibility of our architecture to add new features means we have a lot of opportunity to continue to build and evolve.”

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