Jessica Sanders, Sun Valley Film Festival

Jessica Sanders

The Sun Valley Film Festival was among the first major local events to cancel in response to the rising threat of COVID-19.

Though organizers called off the mid-March event, they nonetheless moved forward distributing various awards, prizes and grants, announcing a near-complete roster of winners in mid-April.

The only absentee from that announcement was the winner of the 2020 Ford Pitch Fest. This competition pits aspiring and established filmmakers head-to-head as they pitch their top ideas to a panel of producers consisting of Effie T. Brown, Jim Burke, Michael Burns and Heather Rae.

Since the Pitch Fest, like the rest of the Film Festival, had to be canceled in its original form, the competition went digital instead. Last week, the festival announced Oscar nominee Jessica Sanders as the recipient of the $25,000 grant for her in-development project “Picking Cotton,” based on the New York Times bestselling memoir of the same name.

“Picking Cotton” tells the true story of Jennifer Thompson, a white college student in North Carolina who was raped at knifepoint, and Ronald Cotton, the black man she identified as her rapist.

Cotton was exonerated after 11 years in prison, his case being the first in the state to be overturned by DNA. In a “stranger-than-fiction” twist, Cotton was able to solve the crime himself when he realized he was serving time with the real rapist. Cotton and Thompson are now friends and activists for criminal justice reform. They co-authored the memoir along with writer Erin Torneo.

“This grant is validating and helpful in making this film become a reality. I’ve been passionate about Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson’s exceptional story since I featured them in my documentary ‘After Innocence,’ a game-changer in criminal justice reform.

“Their story is deeply human, inspiring and timely, exploring themes of redemption, injustice, love and friendship. A happy surprise during quarantine to be recognized with this honor.”

Casting forward to the future, festival Executive Director Teddy Grennan said, “We are very excited Jessica Sanders received the Producers Grant and we hope that we’ll be able to showcase ‘Picking Cotton’ and her other projects at an upcoming Sun Valley Film Festival.”

For more information on the Film Festival and updates on future iterations, visit

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