The Oscar honoree who helped launch Tarantino, Waititi and Coogler

The Oscar honoree who helped launch Tarantino, Waititi and Coogler

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that longtime Sundance Institute leader Michelle Satter would receive this year’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the honor made perfect sense — and not just within the indie-film world. As founding senior director of the artist programs at the institute, and as a crucial mentor to generations of filmmakers that span Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kimberly Peirce and Taika Waititi, Satter has had a quietly seismic effect on American and world cinema. (Satter will be honored at Sunday’s ceremony alongside fellow honorary Oscar recipients Angela Bassett, Mel Brooks and editor Carol Littleton.)

The Hersholt Award is given each year to someone “whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit” to the entertainment industry. For countless emerging artists, many of whom have become marquee names, Satter has been a guide, a sounding board and a goad at the most vulnerable moments in their careers, counseling them not just in how to make their films better, but in how best to get them in front of audiences. She may not be as famous as Sundance founder Robert Redford or onetime indie-film impresario Harvey Weinstein. But she is that rarity in Hollywood: a powerful behind-the-scenes figure who is as beloved as she is respected.

Those feelings were palpable at the Academy’s glittering Governors Awards ceremony in January, even as they were suffused with unimaginable grief: Several weeks earlier, Satter’s 33-year-old son, Michael Latt, had been shot and killed by an intruder at his home in Los Angeles.

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“You’re a mother to so many people sitting in this room,” said Chloé Zhao, who with a tearful Ryan Coogler introduced Satter. Both directors had benefited from her guidance when they were making their first films, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” and “Fruitvale Station.”

“We know there’s nothing we can say to take away the pain,” Zhao said. “But we want to say, and we hope we can say this to you: We are all your children.”

The following day, it was clear that Satter took Zhao’s words to heart. “I’ve spent 42 years being a mother to many, many artists,” she said. Satter was bundled up in a cozy sweater at a bustling Starbucks in the Pacific Palisades, near where she lives with her husband, television producer and writer David Latt (the couple’s eldest son, Franklin, co-heads the motion picture talent department at CAA). Petite and wearing the heavy, black-rimmed glasses that have become her signature, Satter reflected on the previous evening, radiating soft-spoken equanimity even while processing a moment of joy and accomplishment that’s bound up with unspeakable loss. “I learned a lot from him,” she says of Michael, who worked in social-impact film marketing (“Fruitvale Station” was his first project) and named his firm Lead with Love. “It came from our family,” she continues. “Focusing on artists of color was key to him, because it’s been key to me. Focusing on leveraging storytelling for change, key. And leading with love. Leading with love and generosity.”

Love and generosity have been watchwords throughout Satter’s career with the Sundance Institute, during which she has become known for her discerning eye, nurturing disposition and a way of delivering feedback that’s both sharp and liberatingly open-ended. The daughter of the late Warren Satter, a sculptor and painter (her mother Helen, a Holocaust survivor, recently celebrated her 100th birthday), Satter was producing events for an arts nonprofit in Boston and Cambridge, Mass., in 1981 when she accepted a friend’s invitation to help at a summit about the marketing, distribution and exhibition of specialized films during the first Filmmakers Lab at the Sundance Resort. Redford, who named the compound after his character in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” began purchasing property in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains in the early 1960s; in addition to preserving the purity of the surrounding environment, he had started dreaming of a retreat where first-time filmmakers could be mentored by established writers, directors and actors.

When Satter first arrived at Sundance, she recalls, the “Star Wars” franchise had recently notched its second blockbuster and “the studio world was changing in terms of the kind of movies they wanted to make. It was less about personal visionary stories, and it was very much about big, world-building stories and living in fantasy and different genres.” Redford, who had always had an ambivalent relationship with Hollywood, wanted to create a space for something more experimental, less beholden to the corporate imperatives of budgets and deadlines. “It was Bob, a small staff and many volunteers,” Satter recalls of those early days. “I always talk about it as inspired chaos.”

At the end of that first lab, Satter asked Redford for five minutes, during which she lobbied for opening a Sundance office in Los Angeles, on the Warner Bros. lot where his production company was already located. Redford said, “Yeah, call me when you get there,” and Satter has been with the institute ever since, helping to grow the artists’ programs from one month-long session to a year-round slate of labs, fellowships, grants and intensives that have a global presence, including in India, Istanbul, Brazil and Mexico. “We’ve [also] made a commitment, from the very beginning, to supporting artists from underrepresented communities,” Satter notes, adding that projects by Indigenous filmmakers from the United States and around the world constituted “a big piece of our early work and continues.” Waititi (“Next Goal Wins”), Chris Eyre (“Dark Winds”) and Sterlin Harjo (“Reservation Dogs”) are all Sundance alums.

The Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City every January, is the institute’s most public-facing entity, now known as much for branding opportunities and celebrity sightings as for groundbreaking movies. But the institute has stayed true to Redford’s initial vision, as a place where promising young artists can hone their craft amid the spectacular natural setting, gleaning wisdom from such regular advisers as actor Ed Harris, actress and director Joan Darling and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. (Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, Anderson and Kasi Lemmons have also offered their services as advisers.)

In 1997, Gina Prince-Bythewood was on the verge of giving up on her coming-of-age rom-com “Love & Basketball,” when she received a call from Sundance inviting her to meet with Satter. “Before walking in, I was completely freaked out,” Prince-Bythewood recalls. “I was new to meetings and the magnitude of that kind of opportunity.” But within minutes, she says, Satter had put her at ease. “I was able to talk about why I wrote the script and what was important about what I was trying to say. I just felt like I was being heard and that my voice mattered, after being told by so many people there was no value in the story or the characters or the voice.”

Prince-Bythewood wound up being invited to attend both the one-week Screenwriters Lab in January and the two-week Directors and Screenwriters Lab the following June. She made her feature writing-directing debut with “Love & Basketball” two years later. “The environment is magical,” she says. “Not only the setting, but the energy. Because it’s these filmmakers, writers directors, producers that you respect, you’ve seen their work — and now … they’re talking about the script and what I want to say. And it all starts with Michelle, finding voices that aren’t being heard and amplifying them.”

Satter didn’t start out life as a film nerd; growing up in an art-filled household, she observes, gave her a strong aesthetic sense, as did her love of reading and dance. “I know a good story,” she says. “I know a good idea. And I know characters that are complex and come alive. I also know if the writing kind of pops in a way that I’m feeling connected, that it has emotion to it.” She recalls reading an early version of a script called “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in 2008: “It was a mess in terms of structure,” she says. “But boy, was it an interesting story. And there’s that character [the film’s 6-year-old protagonist, Hushpuppy] that would just come alive in moments, and the relationship with the father and daughter, and the world they had created. I could see what it could be.” Satter wound up inviting co-writers Benh Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar to the 2009 Screenwriters Lab; “Beasts of the Southern Wild” premiered at Sundance in 2012 and became one of that year’s biggest art-house hits.

When it comes to feedback, Satter’s philosophy is simple: No “notes,” the dreaded Hollywood ritual whereby executives, agents, financiers and the intern down the hall weigh in on what would make a script “better” (a concept often confused with “more commercial”). “I’m not a notes person,” Satter admits. “I ask a lot of questions. My starting point in giving feedback is intention. Tell me what it is you’re trying to say, and tell me where you are and what you need and what you’re struggling with. And from there it’s a conversation.”

Lulu Wang attended a lab focused on second-time filmmakers just before she left for China to prepare to film “The Farewell” (she has since become a Sundance board member). Working with Tewkesbury, she recalls, “We did a lot of exercises to unlock your imagination, your memories. Then asking, ‘Does my script go as deep as some of the work I’m doing in these exercises?’ Even during production, I used a lot of those same questions, of how do I go deeper and deeper?”

Satter has been with Sundance long enough to see it become shorthand for diametrically opposed values: fierce artistic independence on one hand; marketing and paparazzi on another. For some observers, the fact that the best picture winners of the past three years — Zhao (“Nomadland”), Siân Heder (“CODA”) and Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (“Everything Everywhere All at Once”) — all got their start at Sundance is a source of pride, but also wariness. With those filmmakers eagerly joining the Marvel and “Star Wars” juggernauts, one wonders if the Governors Awards audience was applauding as much for the talent pipeline Sundance has created for their franchises as for her steadfast iconoclasm.

Satter chooses to see the moment through a less binary lens. After all, didn’t Redford show up for a cameo in “Avengers: Endgame”?

“To me, what was so important about it was really recognizing the importance of supporting the future of filmmaking, the artistry of filmmaking,” she says. “[W]hat Bob created, which speaks most eloquently to me, is a culture of generosity, and a way that we can all, with our privilege and talent, give back in some way.”

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