Sundance: From Barista to Award-Winning Documentary Director

Sundance: From Barista to Award-Winning Documentary Director
Feb 2023

Filmmaker Joe Peeler was pinching himself when asked to look back on the journey from being a barista in the Acura lounge to having his film in this year's fest: "I know what it's like to have dumped ice out on the curb after a long shift, you know?"

Pipelines are always a popular topic of conversation when it comes to the Sundance Film Festival, thanks to how the festival funnels and supports talent by way of grants, labs, fellowships and other Sundance Institute programs.

But not everyone has that sort of traditional path to Park City. While on the ground during this year's installment, The Hollywood Reporter bumped into filmmaker Joe Peeler who offered up his rather unique route to becoming a Sundance Film Festival director: He once worked as a barista in the Acura Studio lounge.

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What makes the story even better is, a decade after his coffee-making debut, Peeler, alongside co-director Rebecca Landsberry-Baker, received a U.S. documentary special jury award for freedom of expression for their 2023 festival selection Bad Press. The film, produced by Conrad Beilharz, Garrett F. Baker and Tyler Graim, follows a rogue reporter who, faced with the censorship of the free press in Muscogee Nation, fights to expose her government's corruption in a historic battle that will have ramifications for all of Indian country.

"It is very exciting and feels very surreal," Peeler told THR. "And also very weird to come from a place where I felt like I was on the outskirts of the industry, making coffee for all the film teams coming in every morning to now being here this year, having arrived as a filmmaker in a way. It's very nice. But what I have not forgotten is that view of the entire festival, the excitement of being here but also knowing about all the hard work that goes into everything. I know what it's like to have dumped ice out on the curb after a long shift, you know?"

Peeler was familiar with the barista duties prior to landing the Acura gig, too. During high school, he worked at a local Starbucks, which was experience that helped him get the gig thanks to Bad Press producer Beilharz, who ran a catering company. "He hired me because of a deal they had with Acura, and I remember that we were always so busy every day because, at the time -- this was in 2012 or 2013 -- we were among the first places that served free, hot coffee in the morning so there was always a line out the door," Peeler recalled.

Since then, Peeler has built up a resume thanks to steady editing work on a variety of short films, features and series. His Sundance experience also includes seeing a short film he edited, The Lion's Mouth Opens, debut at the fest in 2014. But being back this year with Bad Press -- and winning an award to boot -- has no doubt delivered an experience that he won't soon forget.


"As a filmmaker, you make a movie in a vacuum and you don't know what is going to happen with it. You just have to trust that the idea or the story is good enough to keep you interested for years. With Bad Press, we were always aiming for Sundance because we imagined that it would provide the best future for our film. So it's amazing to be here and that it happened to coincide with the return of the in-person festival. It's all just very surreal."

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