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Behind The Scenes: Sundance Institute’s Digital Transformation with Pivotal Labs

featured-sundanceThe Sundance Institute’s mission is about discovering and developing independent artists and audiences, and it is known for its film festival, taking place early each year in Park City, Utah. Like most organizations today, their web presence is a cornerstone for engaging people to further their cause, and this year the festival organizers undertook a major digital transformation of their website to improve digital connections and impact of the event

The non-profit takes its name from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Robert Redford, who was also the first chairman and current president. The organization has achieved its mission by helping many notable filmmakers receive their first big break—this includes Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, and Steven Soderbergh. Some of the well-known films out of Sundance include Clerks, Napoleon Dynamite, and The Blair Witch project.

Its staff of 150 and all the programs, initiatives, labs, and grants support over 350 artists per year, and the festival attracts over 45,000 attendees annually. To further their cause, Sundance Institute leadership recently realized the web could be better leveraged to connect their community of artists and audiences.

Challenge: Improving User Experience, Dynamic Scale, and Siloed Data

With a digital audience including over 579,000 followers on Facebook, 33,000 on Instagram, 22,000 on YouTube, and 488,000 on Twitter, one of the key challenges facing Sundance Institute organizers was the ability to capitalize on new, digital technologies to help connect artists and supporters. From another perspective, the Sundance Institute team realized the seasonality of their website traffic and inherent spikes—as much as three times more during the festival. This caused the current system to reach capacity and slow down, and they wanted to be able to scale their web applications up and down as needed to support cost and performance objectives.

The organization also believed an updated user experience was important. Two of the site’s key transactions, ticket purchase and film submission, were overly difficult to use. Visitors also found it too hard to find and use media, education, and news content—for example, people were unaware of Sundance Institute events taking place throughout the year or the flourishing community.

In today’s connected world, the site also needed to better support access via mobile and tablet with a responsive design. Lastly, internal systems and databases were siloed. Sundance Institute wanted to be in a position to connect all the various data collected on artists and supporters as part of their ongoing efforts.

Solution: Improve Web App Platform and Website User Experience

After an evaluation by the Sundance Institute team, Pivotal Labs was chosen as their product development partner. The approach presented a new front-end user interface for the website and a new technology platform to run customer-facing web applications.

The chosen platform was Pivotal Web Services (PWS), based on the open source platform as a service, Cloud Foundry. This service offers development teams many capabilities like one-command deployment, horizontal scaling (up or down) in seconds, built in health monitoring, and support for a variety of application runtimes and data stores that provide extensive flexibility for forthcoming releases.

From a user interface perspective, Pivotal Labs took an agile development approach, and they spent focused design time identifying target users, analyzing their usage, and conceptualizing improvements. Iterations through the process helped bring design, development, and testing together, ultimately executed with JavaScript and HTML 5.

Results: Capacity, Flexibility, and Greater User Engagement

With the new platform, Sundance Institute was in a position to easily add or remove capacity from their applications. Unlike scenarios that require operational overhead to add or remove servers, PWS scales horizontally with one command—the environment adds new, load balanced, monitored instances of the application to handle increased traffic. Disk and memory can also be changed on the fly while data can be stored a variety of ways and accessed in the cloud or on-premise. All of these capabilities met the scale, performance, cost, flexibility, and future growth objectives of Sundance Institute.

The user interface and site redesign effort improved engagement. In the first stages, the Pivotal Labs team shed light on key site visitor profiles—alumni, artists, enthusiasts, and donors—and prioritized the efforts for each audience. The approach gave Sundance Institute new insights on meeting constituent needs. The results included many improvements—the navigation was streamlined, event content became a priority, important media was better showcased, ticket e-commerce purchases improved, and programs are now more easily submitted.


In this stage of their website’s evolution, Sundance Institute is very pleased with the improvements based on external feedback. As they look ahead, they know there is a platform ready to support fully integrated back-end databases with the front-end systems. The site is in a more ready state for exposing archived films and historical data about artists and supports. Lastly, there is a framework to allow social media capabilities to become more embedded, enabling greater conversations among the constituents.

Learn More:

  •        Explore Pivotal Labs to learn more about our agile approach to rapid, flexible software delivery
  •        Find more information on how Pivotal Web Services and Cloud Foundry work and try them freely
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