Outsider's Guide to the Sundance Film Festival
Published: March 2009
By Ann Shields
She was about 25 years old, profiling in snowboarding duds and pigtails and she was speaking loudly into a cell phone in the concession line at the Trolley Square theater in Salt Lake City. "Sign him. Do you hear me? Sign him. Do not go into that meeting without an offer because someone else will get him. Sign him. I'll tell you why later. No. I don't have time to hang around for the conference call— my screening starts in about three minutes." She hung up in time to order a Mr. Pibb and a medium popcorn. Welcome to Sundance.
There are a lot of cell phones, a lot of four-wheel drive vehicles driven by people speaking into cell phones and wearing baseball caps with 'Sundance' on them. Cigars, abandoned, swollen and half unwrapped lie in the snow. Translation: the industry big hitters are here. But there are also filmmakers, screenwriters, actors and fans, and that's why the industry comes. They're all standing on slushy sidewalks talking about what not to miss and what to avoid, who's selling and who's selling out.
For insider and outsider alike, the Sundance Film Festival is beautifully orchestrated. At the Salt Lake City airport, there are signs and booths for festival attendees, giving information about lodging, shuttles, and film schedules. There are ticket offices in Salt Lake and up in Park City, an old mining town transformed into a ski resort, as well as venues in both places. If you didn't buy the half-week passes that sold out ages before the films were even announced, you buy your tickets at these central locations. The films have several showings each, all at different times and in various venues so if there's really something you want to see, you have ample time to get to it.
Robert Redford and the Sundance Institute were asked to take over the faltering United States Film Festival in 1985 and took the opportunity to change the programming radically. Redford found that most of the films coming out of Hollywood reflected the interests of Hollywood. Few ways existed for independent filmmakers to get distribution for their films, in spite of the demand of the burgeoning video and cable markets. Redford decided to devote the film festival to new independent films and, as soon as festival winners like Brother from Another Planet, Blood Simple, Stranger than Paradise and sex, lies and videotape found tremendous financial and critical success outside of Park City, Hollywood started to take notice. Many of the major studios even spawned smaller divisions devoted to nurturing young directors and low budget films. It made sense for the studios to promote these cheaper vehicles— instead of losing millions on a Howard the Duck, the studio's risk was minimal, the filmmakers were hungry for any funding that didn't require maxing out their credit cards or begging from family and friends, and if their efforts made money back, like The Brothers McMullen, or Living in Oblivion, the studios could take credit for their discovery and faith in the sweat of the artist and collect the box office receipts. (After 1997's festival, with the box office failures of most of the big Hollywood/Sundance deals, distributors grew more skittish and far fewer deals were being made before and during the hyper-hyped and frenzied ten festival days.)
Just as Mary Tyler Moore begat Rhoda, who begat Brenda, Sundance has spawned some eager offshoots. There's Slamdance, a smaller festival with films that are usually a little more raw (read: a little less professional). 1997 was the year that the off-offshoot Slumdance went down for the count. But, fear not— now there's Slamdunk, where one can only guess that the films are even more off the beaten track. All of this adds up to a lot of opportunities to sit in the dark and watch movies.
Veterans of the festival have some tips for newcomers not on an expense account:
1. Call or log on to the Sundance site and get the film program early in December. Read the descriptions and note the ones you're most interested in. Think twice about films with big name stars or directors-they'll probably show up at your local fiveplex during the course of the year. Now's your chance to see the offbeat, the small wonders that may never draw enough of a box office for Hollywood to believe in, but may just appeal to you. (Remember, the indy film world spawned some of your favorite actors and actresses— Steve Buscemi, Parker Posey, Harvey Keitel, Lilli Taylor— plus, when this year's low-budget director is contracted for Batman VII, you'll be able to say, 'I saw their first low-budget film at Sundance and it was far superior to this drivel.')
2. If you hear about a hot film you absolutely must see and it's early enough in the festival so that tickets are remotely possible, here are some hints:
- Try early morning (at 8:30 am, you can pretty much bank on no-shows) or late night screenings. Even if you can't buy a ticket at the main ticket office, you can show up early and get on the waiting list or buy from someone's who's decided to go to a party. (The waiting list, even for a sold-out show, is a definite option— seats are saved for press and express ticket holders, and if they don't show up fifteen minutes early, and you're towards the front of the waiting list, you're in.)
- Bigger venues like Eccles and Prospector Square have more seats than the tiny Egyptian or the Holiday Village.
- Think about taking the shuttle down to Salt Lake for a screening there— always less crowded.
- Stay through the final Sunday of the festival. The town is clearing out and tickets are there for the taking, even for the films that won the big awards the night before.
3. Consider staying in Salt Lake City. In the minus column: No movie stars, you have to rent a car (which you may choose to do if you stayed in Park City anyway), and the drive is about 35 minutes over the glorious Wasatch mountains, but the plus column is pretty enticing:
- All the films in competition are screened in regular movie theaters (the Tower is a charming old movie palace with cappucino and a huge screen) and the tickets are far easier to score. Non-Hollywood and New York audiences, without their responses (my-company-paid-big-simolians-for-this-so-it-better-be-perceived-as-funny laughs and my-ignored-masterpiece-is-better-than-this-pedestrian-film sneers), make for less stressful moviegoing experience.
- The housing is cheaper than in Park City— look at the Salt Lake lodging ideas and try the bed & breakfast scene (there are some beautiful old mansions converted to b&bs.) Try the Inn at Temple Square, the Hotel Monaco and the SaltAir B&B for a more flavorful stay.
- You won't have the horrible waits for restaurants and there are a lot more options.
- When you get tired of sitting in the dark (and you will), you can sightsee. There's the whole fascinating Mormon thing— whether you're charmed or put-off by the LDS (Latter Day Saints) benevolent grip on Salt Lake, you won't be able to get enough of the cultural facts. Strike up a conversation with a 'jack Mormon' (someone who has left the fold, and there are plenty there) to get the dark side, and take the tour of the Temple Square complex to get the light and decide for yourself.
- Remember your physics class: For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. Because of the Mormons and their stronghold over the city, Salt Lake's counterculture is alive and kicking. Check out the Best of Utah listings in the Salt Lake City Weekly and see what non-LDS Salt Lake City has to offer.
4. Get housing early. You can check the logistics section on Sundance Channel's website for the 1998 festival to get idea's for next years' housing crunch. Don't bypass housing possibilities in Deer Valley— it's only a two minute drive from Park City and is chockablock with condos and timeshares.
5. Staying in a condo will save you time and money foodwise— most of the low-budget filmmakers can be seen throwing garlic and pasta and breakfast foods into carts at the local supermarkets. After you wait an hour or so for a table on slushy Main Street in Park City, you'll start thinking Swanson's t.v. dinners, too. (When you eat at a place you like, make reservations for later in the week, lunch or dinner, on your way out the door.)
6. Bring ski clothes. Because of the Sundance hubbub at the bottom of the hill, there are no liftline waits and generally lots of fresh powder at the top. The skiing is sublime— not for nothing did the 2002 Winter Olympics choose Salt Lake City. Sundance skiiers have quite the slope selection nearby: Park City (logistically easy if you're staying in town, and lots of runs), Deer Valley (mere minutes away, a couple of dollars more expensive, and deeee-luxe services), the Canyons in Park City (very reasonable lift tickets mid-week), and Alta (about 40 minutes away, but great prices, one of the highest snowfall rates in North America, and very pretty).
7. Have fun. All those cell-phone toting bigwigs probably envy your pressure-free experience of the future of film.
See you at the movies!