Yes, the rumors are true.
Sundance, the country’s most popular film festival and erstwhile bellwether of American independent cinema, has gone Hollywood of late. But among all the slavering huddles of paparazzi, red carpets and brand activations, there are still really good movies to be seen and really interesting people to be heard from.
Here’s the skinny.
Sundance. Should I bother? Sundance is arguably the most important film festival in the U.S. Though perhaps not the art-first talent incubator it was in its early years — when it supported groundbreaking films like sex, lies, and videotape, Stranger than Paradise, Roger & Me, and The Unbelievable Truth — it remains a crucial launching pad for new directors like Rian Johnson, who brought Brick to Park City in 2005. His next film: just a little art project currently called Star Wars: Episode VIII.
How do I get there? Fly to Salt Lake City. Rent a car and drive to Park City (about 40 minutes) or take one of the ubiquitous shuttles (our choice: All Resort).
I’m confused by film festivals. How does it work? Sundance is equal parts marketplace and exhibition, featuring the work of directors looking to sell films made independently or studios looking to show off their latest acquisitions. Hundreds of films from around the world and all different categories — features, documentaries, shorts, art films, everything — will screen at theaters, primarily in the ski town of Park City, but also in Salt Lake City and nearby Sundance, a Robert Redford-owned resort/wilderness preserve. Here’s the program. It opens January 21st and closes 10 days later. The opening three days are exponentially busier than the seven that follow. If you’re going for celebs and buzz, go early. If you’re going for the movies, go later.
Surely it’s too late to find somewhere to stay? Park City hotels book up months/years in advance, as a good portion of the entertainment industry decamps to Utah for this 10-day stretch. What’s left is generally pricy or inconvenient: private listings, via sites like Airbnb or VRBO, will be your best bet — like this three-bedroom near Main Street for $773 a night. Cheaper digs can be found in nearby Kimball Junction (which is on the festival’s free bus system). If you value savings over convenience, rent a car and stay in Salt Lake City. Availability is better following the chaotic opening weekend.
And what about tickets? They must be gone? It’s too late for most ticket packages, though you can still get a couple passes for the second half of the festival: the $1,500 Eccles (valid at Eccles Theater, one of the festival’s main venues) or the $3,000, all-powerful Express Pass, valid at any festival theater. Same-day tickets will be available on — yes — the same day the film shows. Easiest to get: shorts programs and world documentaries (the latter of which are often the festival’s best films). Hardest: any feature starring actors whose names you already know.
What should I see? Consider avoiding big-name films with distribution deals already in place, since they’ll be making their way to your local multiplex (or computer screen) anyway. We’re (legitimately) excited about 11.22.63, but it’ll be on Hulu three weeks after the festival ends. Otherwise, we’ve got new offerings from Kevin Smith, Whit Stillman, Kenneth Lonergan, Diego Luna and Todd Solondz. Event we want to go to but will never find a ticket for: Richard Linklater providing live commentary during a screening of Dazed and Confused.
But actually, I just really want to see celebrities. Possible? Despite the crowds of hangers-on, wannabe ingenues who flew themselves in from Ukraine for a chance at the spotlight (we have proof) and swag-suite managers desperately trying to get celebs to pose with their $500 boots, actual stars do make an appearance at Sundance. They’re everywhere and nowhere: they generally show up for the Q+As that close out screenings of their films. Every film has a party the same night it debuts, which its cast generally attends — but even if you can get in, you’re just as likely to catch them walking Main Street (look for the trailing paparazzi) or giving an interview in a hotel lobby. The more interesting game is to meet the next big star(let). And they’re everywhere.
What about the skiing? We’ve heard the slopes are deserted, though we have no idea, since we’ve always been sequestered in dark rooms stuffing our face full of popcorn.