The cast of hidden figures. Jamie Lamor Thompson/shutterstock

The cast of hidden figures. Jamie Lamor Thompson/shutterstock

In 2003, before funders began giving millions for STEM education or calling on Americans to view scientists the way they value athletes, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Sundance Institute began a collaboration focused on highlighting “the human dimension of the scientific and technological enterprise.”

Sundance’s Science-In-Film Initiative is a central part of this effort. With funding from Sloan, it supports emerging filmmakers whose work explores scientific themes and characters and their place in our culture. Sundance recently announced $70,000 in grants to filmmakers as part of this initiative.

The $20,000 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize, which recognizes a film focusing on science or technology as a theme, or depicting a scientist, engineer or mathematician as a major character, went to Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, which explores the “Promethean struggles” of the famed inventor. Sundance awarded the $25,000 Sloan Commissioning Grant to Tim Delaney, whose film The Plutonians looks at how astronomers responded to Pluto’s demotion from a planet to a dwarf planet. Check out the other winners here.

The initiative is part of Sloan’s broader program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology to give people a deeper appreciation of science and scientists. “We want to show that science is a quintessentially human activity that has helped shape the modern world,” foundation vice president and program director Doron Weber told me. “Our strategy is to bridge the two cultures of science and the humanities by commissioning, developing, producing, and disseminating an array of culture-defining products—books, radio, television, film, theater, and new media—that translate science for the lay public. We’re like a Time Warner or News Corp for science.”

“Culture Eats Technology”

Weber told me that Sloan is most interested in “scientific content and characters combined with good storytelling.” And while the foundation likes to fund projects across various media—Weber calls its approach “platform-agnostic”—he told me that film is “still probably the most popular and impactful art form. Everyone speaks film. So we continue to support a dozen film schools with annual awards in screenwriting and film production. We hope to influence the next generation of film artists.”

Weber provided two examples of Sloan’s work in action. The foundation made a book grant to an unknown author Margot Lee Shetterly whose Hidden Figures told the story about black female mathematicians who worked at NASA during the Space Race. The book was subsequently turned into an Oscar-nominated film that has grossed $236 million. Similarly, Sloan commissioned a play, book, and documentary about actress and unheralded technological pioneer Hedy Lamar, whose work laid the groundwork for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies.

Weber also acknowledges that we’re living in a “golden age for television and streaming services.” As a result, Weber considers the addition of episodic television grants at Sloan’s film schools and film partners to be the biggest change to the initiative since its inception. “We have an incredible pipeline of great episodic series in development,” he said. “We even made a grant to our first television festival in North Fork, Long Island. We also have prizes in film animation and some exploratory grants in gaming and VR.”

Weber was encouraged by the fact that several foundations have followed Sloan’s lead in supporting films that hit on technological themes. “That bodes well for grant seekers, even though so far, they are focusing on documentaries, not on narrative features.” Weber then called attention to an untapped pool of funders that, on paper, should be quite sympathetic to the idea of using film to educate the public about technology. “There is a lot of new tech money going into philanthropy so my hope is that more of those funds will make their way into the arts which have been neglected.

He added:

Though we are living in the age of Big Tech, with all the pluses and minuses that entails, in the end, culture eats technology. We are all part of a far-reaching human culture whose values and beliefs supersede even the most cutting-edge tools. People ignore that fundamental truth at their peril. It’s why Steve Jobs made the coolest products that outsold everyone else!

Success Stories

Sloan has provided science-oriented filmmakers with the tools for a sustainable career. Weber told me that in the 20 years, 80 percent of students receiving awards from Sloan and Sundance have remained in the film and media, and an almost equal number have integrated science into their work.

For example, Nicole Perlman was a young college student when she won an award for her script about Richard Feynman’s role in the Challenger disaster. She went on to co-write Guardians of the Galaxy, becoming the first woman to write a Marvel movie and is now one of the hottest writers in Hollywood. Success stories such as Perlman’s “show our impact in terms of influencing an entire generation to incorporate science and technology themes and character into their work, even if they first breakthrough with other material,” Weber said.

In addition to Sundance, Sloan works with a half a dozen film partners like Tribeca Film Institute, Film Independent, and SFFILM to develop new scripts for production. To date 28, feature films have been produced and released into theaters. “Our partners,” Weber said, “work like a farm system or development pipeline and you can receive multiple grants from them as long as you show progress. Because you know filmmakers always need more money.”

Weber was especially proud of Sloan’s work in bringing Hidden Figures to theaters, calling the film “a phenomenon that has become part of our vocabulary and helped change the culture. It’s spawned courses and scholarships and prizes, its name has been plastered on buildings and streets and it’s inspired a new generation of young women—and especially women of color—to see that STEM is a realistic and satisfying career.”

This past December, Sloan hosted what Weber called “a bipartisan lovefest” in the Capitol to celebrate passage of the Congressional Gold Medal bill honoring the women of Hidden Figures. Speakers praised the five honorees who worked on the space program from 1940 to 1960. “This is one example of the outsized impact that a two cultures program in Public Understanding of Science can have,” Weber said.

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