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The 2021 Sundance Film Festival goes virtual


  • Dreamstime

On January 23, 2020—the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival—the "novel coronavirus" outbreak in Wuhan, China, was still a secondary news story in the United States, with only one confirmed case in this country. While attendance was down a bit—approximately 4 percent less, according to Sundance Institute CFO Betsy Wallace—things still felt somewhat normal, with "normal" in late-January Park City being a crush of people in confined spaces, enjoying one of the preeminent international film festivals in the world.

Plenty has changed in the intervening year, as the pandemic raged through the U.S. and throughout the world. For film festivals like Sundance, that meant dealing with the realities of public-health needs, including cancellation of some 2020 festivals while others moved to a digital, virtual format. And it soon became clear in this tumult that Sundance 2021 probably wouldn't look anything like Sundance 2020.

"Pretty early on, we realized that we would have to plan for a different festival," says Sundance Film Festival's director of programming Kim Yutani. "I remember, probably in April, end of March even, we started talking about how we conceived the festival.

The result is a Sundance 2021 experience that will take place almost exclusively online, with "attendees" experiencing festival films from their homes around the country. It promises to be a radically different kind of festival for audience members, for filmmakers and for festival organizers—and while everyone hopes that 2022 will see a return to a more conventional Sundance Film Festival, it could also be a harbinger of changes that might continue indefinitely.

Building the Platform
When Tabitha Jackson was announced as the new festival director for Sundance near the end of the 2020 festival, she certainly had no idea that for her first year at the helm, she'd essentially be building a festival infrastructure from scratch. Yet according to her, there was actually a certain liberation in taking on this new role at a time when it was clear that everything would have to be different.

"In a sense, there were no expectations, which meant that was a kind of freedom to experiment that I otherwise may not have had," Jackson says via email. "Although it is fair to say that I had not factored a global pandemic, an international reckoning around racial justice and an assault on democracy into how I envisioned my first year as the director of the Sundance Film Festival, what I did know was that in order to find the path forward, we had to remember where we came from."

That "where we came from" was a focus on artists and their work— something that could be accomplished in a way that addressed what Jackson identified as the No. 1 priority for the year: "the safety of our artists, audiences, staff, volunteers and the local community." While that focus meant a traditional in-person festival in Park City would not be practical, there was an opportunity to provide access to films in other ways. Twenty cities serve as "satellite" locations for in-person festival screenings at local art houses and pop-up drive-ins from San Francisco to San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The primary "location" for Sundance 2021 would clearly have to be online, however—and in a sense, Sundance was the beneficiary of the timing of the pandemic. Several other international film festivals, including the New York Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, had already developed online platforms for their films in the fall of 2020, allowing Sundance personnel the opportunity to network with those organizations and learn what was and wasn't working.

"We've been in touch with pretty much all of our colleagues who have gone through this," Sundance programming director Yutani says, "and it's been a really important time for us to hear what their experiences are. Some of the festivals are going into their second year of being digital. So, I think the information-sharing has been very helpful.

"It's been a lot of pivoting over the past several months," she adds, "waiting and seeing, then pivoting to our next scenario."

While the technology for showing films was a relatively easy part in a world where streaming content is an everyday part of life, the more challenging part for the Sundance staff was creating a format that could in some way replicate the experience of being at a film festival. When everyone is watching movies independently in their homes, how do you achieve the "buzz" of folks discovering new work and sharing that experience with others?

"The energy that comes out of Sundance was something we had to capture somehow," Yutani says. "That's why we're having distinct three-hour Premiere windows, playing in kind of a live way [see Virtual Sundance: How to Do It, p. 10]. We're telling people to press 'play' at this particular time, so you can experience the Q&A immediately after. ... That kind of replicates how we act at festivals—somebody sees a film they love, they want to talk about it."

The online platform "captures the festival's energy and a sense of 'urgency,'" Jackson adds. "Just as you would in Park City, you've got to make choices and build schedules. ... We've made it our mission to preserve as much of that Park City magic as possible on this online platform, from the hustle and bustle of Main Street to the revelations of post-screening chats."

  • Courtesy Sundance Institute

A Program for a New Scenario
Once the infrastructure was in place, the question became what the programming would look like. And coming on the heels of a pandemic year—with many productions having to be shut down for extended periods of time or postponed indefinitely—there was a question of what the pool of available films might be.

According to Yutani, however, the number of submissions for the 2021 festival was down only slightly compared to 2020. "Early on, we just weren't sure what we were going to get," she says. "Last year, we got 10,000 shorts; this year, just under that number. The difference was negligible. That gave us a lot of confidence."

Nevertheless, the decision was ultimately made to scale back the festival, both in terms of the time frame and the number of films that were programmed. The festival that usually runs 11 days will cover only seven in 2021; where Sundance 2020 included 118 feature films, Sundance 2021 has currently scheduled 74. "We had really intense conversations about how we would scale the festival, took a really hard look at what was essential," Yutani says. "And that's represented in the shape of the program this year."

Those elements of the 2021 festival that do look the same are in large part about recognizing what's important to the filmmakers. It was always clear, for example, according to Yutani, that they would retain competition categories and awards, since those become an important tool for filmmakers attempting to secure distribution deals. And while she acknowledges that many filmmakers are disappointed there can't be an in-person festival, there's still an excitement that comes from being part of Sundance—even in this very different way.

"We just had our filmmaker orientations, when we introduce ourselves as programmers, and they introduce themselves to us," Yutani says. "It's usually an in-person event in Los Angeles and New York, but we did it by Zoom. I wasn't certain how these events would go over, but I feel most people are so excited about creating that community feeling. Filmmakers are kind of moved by this moment of having to meet other filmmakers after working on their own projects in their own bubbles.

"I think everybody wishes we could be in Park City, as usual, seeing films with audiences, but everybody understands the moment we're in," she acknowledges.

And there is an opportunity in the challenge: "This is our chance to do something really different," she says.

  • Courtesy Sundance Institute

Virtual Festival, Real-World Losses
While a virtual Sundance is an opportunity for new ways of sharing films with audiences, it's also an undeniable loss for local businesses. Every year, an economic impact report evaluates what the Sundance Film Festival contributes to the local economy. In 2020, that report estimated 44,000 out-of-state visitors attending the festival, contributing $135 million in spending. Overall, the 2020 festival was estimated to support more than 2,700 jobs and contribute $17.8 million in state and local tax revenue.

The Sundance Institute itself has also seen an impact from the shift to a virtual festival, according to CFO Wallace. The festival is the nonprofit's primary source of annual income, and ticket revenue is estimated to be down as much as 60 percent from 2020. Similarly, ancillary income like sales of merchandise will be down, simply because there aren't in-person shops that festival-goers can stroll into and make an impulse buy.

Wallace also notes that while many nonprofits have been required to think creatively over the past year and seek out potential alternative income streams, that really hasn't been possible for Sundance as the organization focused on building the infrastructure for the virtual festival. "I think the issue for us was, once we made the decision that we had to have a non-in-person event, our whole pivot was to focus on creating the online," she says. "We don't have that kind of manpower as a nonprofit; you have to focus on the big event. To create that magic, we had to make sure all eyes were on that."

And as a Park City resident herself, Wallace feels the absence of the festival on an emotional level. "I moved here in 2002 and was able to experience Sundance for several years as a regular patron [before joining Sundance in 2015]," she says.

"It is really gut-wrenching to me. Park City is my home," she says. "I really want people to enjoy the shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie of the festival. But the health of our residents or people coming in is truly of the utmost importance to us. Of course, we're all sad that the financial impact of all the businesses here just won't happen, but health is most important."

  • Courtesy Sundance Institute

An Ear to the Ground
As the virtual festival gets underway, there is certainly a degree of uncertainty regarding whether everything will work the way festival organizers hope it does, from the technology itself to the question of whether audience members will feel a similar festival excitement. When you can't be in a physical theater with all the people watching the movie, it also becomes harder to get a sense for what movies moved people.

Festival director Jackson says that she'll be keeping an eye on social media and online press reactions as one way to know how people are responding to the films. Additionally, she says, "I'll be hanging out in the incredible New Frontier space that we have built this year in which, by using some great social tools (avatars, webcams and proximity audio), I can bump into artists, festivalgoers and friends and have a genuinely social experience and learn what they make of it all."

"I'm not a big Twitter person," Yutani says, "but, this year, that's going to be my version of eavesdropping on people in the Starbucks or at the Grub Steak or on the shuttle. Because I am curious to know just what's resonating with audiences."

This strange new festival experience will, however, allow for greater accessibility around the country to those who might never have been able to "attend" Sundance before—and like so many changes necessitated by the pandemic, it's possible some virtual component of the festival might stick around.

"Everything is very specific to this year," Yutani says, "but on the positive side, it's giving us a chance to experiment, and seeing what changes we might continue going forward."

"I'm hoping that we get feedback from the patrons who watch online, and that they give us their thoughts," Wallace adds. "Were you able to watch with your family, and was that special? Were you able to talk about films with your friends? ... This is just a new way of seeing it, and yes, we're going to miss people in person. But did people see films, and were they able to experience joy or whatever takeaway they might have?

"The most important part I want people to know," Wallace says, "is this has been our home, and we dreadfully miss it."


Virtual Sundance 2021: How to Do It
Whether you're a Sundance Film Festival veteran or a first-timer, we're all in the same boat this year with a format that's completely different. If you want to be part of this year's festival—even as you stay at home and never have to worry about snow, traffic and ticket lines—here's how to do it.

Get registered. Participating in Sundance 2021 requires online registration. Get started at festival.sundance.org by creating an account that will allow you to organize your schedule.

Choose your ticketing option. Attendees can select full festival passes ($350), single-day passes that allow for unlimited viewing for a single day ($75), individual film tickets ($15) and an Explorer Pass ($25) that allows access to content like the New Frontier, Short Films programs and Indie Series selections throughout the festival. Find your price point, and make your purchase.

Get acquainted with the movies. The number of films at Sundance 2021 is smaller than in recent years, but there's still a lot to see. Take a look through the full program guide to make decisions about which titles look most appealing to you.

Understand the difference between premiere slots and on-demand slots. The major distinction in this year's virtual festival is between films that are premiering in a specific time slot—including filmmaker Q&As—and those that are showing for a 24-hour on-demand window. Each day Jan. 28-Feb. 2 includes three-hour premiere blocs, when as many as five titles might be making their debut at the same time. Passholders are allowed to reserve a slot for only one film per three-hour bloc. Each film then has a 24-hour on-demand slot as well, usually two days after it premieres, beginning at 8 a.m. MT.

Build your personal schedule. Those who buy individual tickets can find out on the film's landing page at the festival website whether there's still single-ticket availability remaining; there are no "wait list" options for the virtual festival. Passholders can make reservations for premiere and on-demand viewing, which will then show up on their account as "My Schedule." Remember that if you want to switch a reservation for a specific three-hour premiere bloc, you need to delete the old selection before adding a new one.

Interact in non-movie ways. At Festival Village (village.festival.sundance.org), you can experience panels featuring film industry professionals, enjoy music performances and much more—and it's all available for free, even if you don't have any festival tickets or credentials, just like if you were wandering down Park City's Main Street.