Sundance Film Festival Changes Format: It’s Coming Down the Mountain!

Sundance Film Festival Changes Format: It’s Coming Down the Mountain!

For 36 years, movie lovers have flocked to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival. For those who’ve never been to Park City, it’s a precious little ski town some 7,000 feet up in the Wasatch mountains. During the ten-day festival, attendees fill theaters to capacity and huddle together in crowded tents. They pack into shuttle buses and pour into overcrowded bars and restaurants to be part of the festival scene. There’s no place to social distance.

Covid has forced organizers to rethink the festival format

Festival fans are in for a big surprise this year. According to Tabitha Jackson, Sundance director, the 2021 festival is coming down the mountain! Sundance needed to find other distribution channels or cancel the festival altogether, and they decided to get creative.

The difference-maker at this year’s festival: 20 new locales

Besides the original Park City venue, organizers are working with independent cinemas in California, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas. Mexico City is also on the list. Participating theaters may augment Sundance selections with complementary programming of their own. Sundance’s “full curated program” would also be made available online. “It will be the nucleus of the festival,” Jackson said of an online platform that Sundance is developing, “a one-stop point of access.”

Ms. Jackson’s plan is about more than accommodating attendees who may not feel comfortable flying to Utah or supporting their corporate sponsorships. The Park City base has been the festival’s strength as well as its weakness. Those who can make the pilgrimage feel like members of an exclusive club, seeing films before anyone else and rubbing shoulders with celebrities. The festival is known for championing women and minority filmmakers, even while diversity among attendees is often lacking.

The festival opens itself up to new audiences and new filmmakers

“We want to reach people whom we have not been able to reach before — where access to the work is not predicated on being able to afford to travel to an expensive place,” Ms. Jackson said by phone. “The world has typically come to Sundance. While Utah will always be our home, we are now trying to take Sundance to the world.”

We must break it to meet the moment

Jackson took over as the festival’s director in February 2020, and she inherited a proud legacy. The Sundance Institute was founded by Robert Redford in 1981. Sundance remains the preeminent showcase for American cinema made outside Hollywood. Bidding wars still break out for online and theatrical distribution rights to festival selections. According to Jackson, “I thought to myself when I got this job, ‘I must not break this. I must not break this.’ But we must break it to meet the moment. We must break it open.”

Meeting the moment . . .

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