For ten days every winter, the snowy streets of Park City, Utah are the hottest place to be. The former mining town transforms into a temporary Tinseltown, complete with LA A-listers, industry big wigs and film buffs from every corner of the world. It’s the Sundance Film Festival.
Unlike the ultra-exclusive Cannes Film Festival, Sundance is open to everyone. Hollywood’s heavy hitters come for brutal bidding wars and swanky swag bags. Indie filmmakers attend with ambitions of catching a power player’s eye. Fans drop in to witness the future of film and rub elbows with stars.
Despite the frigid weather, the city practically sizzles with excitement. The energy is infectious. What can you skip? What can’t you miss? Who’s selling big? Who’s selling out? Between screenings, skiing, eating, imbibing, partying, mixing and mingling, you’ll be lucky if you can squeeze in sleep.
For insider and outsider alike, the Sundance Film Festival is show biz at its best.
The Sundance Saga
The story of Sundance begins in Salt Lake City in 1978. Then called the U.S. Film Festival, the event was a large-scale effort to attract filmmakers to Utah and feature American-made movies. Over the next few years, the festival caught the attention of Hollywood and one man – Robert Redford – in particular.
Redford’s Sundance Institute assumed creative and administrative control of the U.S. Film Festival in 1985. They expanded it to a 10-day event and made it the festival’s mission to showcase the potential of independent cinema, both American and international. In 1991, the festival received a new name to go with the new format: Sundance.
Today’s Sundance Institute has more moving parts than an F1 racecar. There are programs for documentaries, feature films, film music, theatre, indigenous filmmakers, producers, writers and young storytellers. Workshops are held around the United States. Archives can be found online and at the University of California, Los Angeles. Sister festivals have been launched in London and Hong Kong.
Sundance is much more than one famed film festival, but those 10 days in Utah are the crown jewel of the Institute.
With its celeb-studded premieres, lively after-parties and incredible works of celluloid art, the Sundance Film Festival is a bucket-list experience for film buffs, fashionistas and wannabe paparazzi. The 10 days are divded into two equal parts – the first 5 days and the last 5 days – with ticket packages and festival passes following the same division.
Every film is shown at least once during each period, but both halves don’t offer the same experience. Tickets sell fastest for the first half, which boasts the Opening Ceremonies and star spotting galore. The second half is less crowded, and includes the closing galas and the Awards Ceremonies. Either way, you’ll have no shortage of movies and post-screening soirees.
Know Before You Go
Sundance can be an enchanting adventure or a lot of standing around in the cold. The key to making sure it’s the former is to plan ahead.
First, check the calendar. The festival is always held in January, but the exact dates change. Second, start booking. Park City is approximately 45 minutes from Salt Lake City, so festival-goers should arrive at Salt Lake City International Airport. From there you can take a shuttle bus to Park City.
The biggest challenge is lodging. Park City is relatively small, so you’ll need to make arrangements in advance. Hotels fill quickly and are notoriously expensive. Home rental through Airbnb or a similar service can be a better option for travellers on a budget. What you won’t need to arrange is a vehicle – the free Sundance shuttles are the transit method of choice to avoid gridlocked traffic and steep parking fees.
Most film festival fashion is red carpet-ready, but if Sundance style had to be summed up in one word, it would be this: layers. Utah in the winter is cold, and you’ll be passing through a variety of environments during your stay. A single outfit will need to get you through the bus to a screening, waiting in the queue outside and sitting in the theatre – at least. Dress for snow, but chicly.
There’s one last piece to the Sundance puzzle: your tickets. As the premiere independent film festival in the United States, competition can be fierce to score passes to the most popular films. Attendees get seriously strategic about the process. Your options include:
Early Registration: Register online the September before the festival to receive an email alert when tickets are available. In early January, you’ll be able to log in during a pre-selected timeslot to make your film selection online.
A Charitable Donation: Become a member of the nonprofit Sundance Institute. A contribution of US$2,500 advances your place in the line for packages and tickets (though you’ll still have to pay for them).
Volunteering: The immense logistical infrastructure of Sundance is propped up by hundreds of volunteers, some of whom are rewarded with access to films. Start the application process early and note that only half of volunteer applicants are accepted.
Same-Day Tickets: Same-day tickets become available at 8 AM. The perk of being an early bird is that the partygoers are still sleeping off their hangovers. There’s also a waitlist option if your must-see turns out to be everyone’s must-see.
Schmooze: Ticketholders often have extras to unload. Queues start forming 40 minutes before screenings. Just walk up and down the line, inquiring after extras for sale. Scalpers with face-value tickets can also be found hawking their wares.
If it sounds complicated, it is – and that’s part of the fun. Your best bet is to remain flexible. Your first choice film might sell out, but the movie you see instead could become the big hit of that year’s fest.
Beyond The Big Screen
As cinema-centric as Sundance is, the feature flicks aren’t the only entertainment available to attendees.
Art fans can track down the two Banksy paintings that appeared in Park City in 2010, when the elusive street artist was in town for the Sundance debut of his documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The town is also packed with miles of swag and sponsored events (much to Banksy’s annoyance, undoubtedly).
Increasingly, shows of the non-cinematic variety are becoming popular during the festival. Musicians and comedians perform, and artists exhibit their cutting-edge works. The only thing that can rival the allure of the arts in Park City is the skiing. Park City Mountain, Canyons and Deer Valley resorts are accessible from downtown and offer superb snow.
Sundance after sundown is all about the parties. When festival-goers have had their fill of independent film, it’s time to revel alongside Hollywood royalty with some of the biggest names in nightlife. Many parties are by invitation only, but not all (and the right demeanor at the door can sometimes get you by the bouncers at the private affairs).
Why It Belongs On Your Bucket List
There’s something magical about seeing a normally lowkey city transform into the epicentre of motion picture mania. Sundance is widely considered the most important film festival in the United States, and on the world stage, it’s second only to Cannes. That’s a lot of start power to pack into one place.
At Sundance, you feel like you’re part of something. It’s the ultimate incubator for movies that resonate deeply in popular culture, a tastemaker that won’t necessarily top box offices but will certainly win hearts. In a world collapsing under the weight of cookie-cutter summer blockbusters, Sundance is an invigorating reminder that film can still be an innovative art form.