For those who’ve never been to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, this year could be your first time — wherever you are.
And that might be a good thing if you’re experiencing Sundance from home.
For those who’ve been, you don’t have to worry about scrambling for a last minute ticket to a screening, which is tradition at previous Sundances.
Not to mention, “it’s very cold,” said Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam about the weather outside Main Street’s Egyptian Theatre, “It’s snowing.” Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the Egyptian is not one of the fest’s main venues this year in what is largely a virtual online festival with satellite movie theaters –where they are safely opened– playing the 2021 Sundance programming lineup.
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For first timers, one treat they’ll get is seeing Sundance founder Robert Redford tonight during the festival’s opening night, organizers confirmed during this morning’s press conference. Back in 2019, the Oscar winner stepped away as the face of the festival, but put in an appearance last year to say goodbye to exiting Festival Director John Cooper. Cooper moved into an Emeritus role at the fest starting this year.
In her first year as Director of the Festival, Tabitha Jackson, was already expected to broaden the festival’s reach, however, the pandemic simply expedited. Is it a format we’ll see at Sundance in 2022 and beyond?
Says Jackson, “The possibilities of reach, and access and participation to a global audience, that is what I want to carry through in a way that seems appropriate. We’re always going to have too many people to fit into Park City, we’re always going to have people who financially simply can’t or physically or geographically make it to Park City. This additional dimension, I think, is really exciting. But we haven’t started the festival yet. What I want us to do is remain open and notice the possibilities and opportunities that present themselves, and also noticed the things that we tried, but they didn’t work. So going in with a spirit of experimentation and openness.”
How will a virtual format impact the acquisition market for Sundance titles this year? Quite often buyers will make their gut decisions based off the energy in the room at a Sundance premiere. This year, that’s clearly lacking.
Putnam’s sincere answer to this is “We don’t know…so many factors go into these titles getting acquired. What’s going on with the distribution environment, we want to lean back and learn and listen and see where we are.”
As far as the pandemic’s impact on submissions, it wasn’t severe. Jackson pointed out that while submission numbers were slightly down in the U.S. production and fiction titles from last year, she’s impressed at how nimble indie filmmakers have been making movies in 2020, and responding to the pandemic in some of their work.
“We didn’t know this year whether we were going to get anything. Artists were ill, dealing with tragedy and on the frontlines of the uprising of racial justice, and victims of the economic crisis. How on Earth were they going to make work? We didn’t know whether it would be feast or famine,” said Jackson.
There was per Jackson “creativity that came through the pandemic.” Fourteen movies in this year’s lineup were made through the Sundance Institute.
One film making its world premiere at Sundance which was shot during the pandemic and is set against it is Neon’s Ben Wheatley directed genre title In the Earth about scientists being tortured by witches in the wilderness.
In regards to the impact of #BlackLivesMatter on the festival, Jackson said, “To promote diversity in film is one of Sundance’s founding missions. Its purpose was around creating particular voices that either had been left on the margins or confined to the margins. I wouldn’t date to the uprise in #BlackLivesMatter. This moment that felt like some kind of defining moment, certainly made us look at a different eye on how we do things, the conversations we have in the programming rooms, questions we’d like to ask on submission forms going forward, and understanding who we are as the gatekeepers of resources.”
“These issues have been the same issues we’ve been dealing with and filmmakers have been addressing through their work,” added the Sundance Festival director, “Unlike the pandemic, it’s not like something we just noticed.”
One key hot acquisition title dealing with racial issues in the U.S. Competition section is Rebecca Hall’s Passing starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga about two African-American women who “passing’ as white, choose to live on opposite sides of the color line in 1929 New York. The pic explores racial and gender identity, performance, obsession and repression.
A curated portion of this year’s Sundance lineup will play at arthouses in 24 states this year. Unfortunately, like most of 2020, Los Angeles won’t be entreated to it given the pandemic. It was originally scheduled that Sundance titles would play at drive-ins in Southern California, but with spiking cases, that plan was axed earlier this month.
With Los Angeles easing Covid stay-at-home restrictions as soon as this Friday, Sundance Producing Director Gina Duncan said that unfortunately, the fest won’t be resurrecting the drive-in portion at the last minute.
“It takes a lot of work and it would be hard for us to get back to work quickly,” she said, “we can’t go back now.”
Still, don’t let a pandemic ruin your film festival. Jackson and Putnam are grateful for the artists, “our north stars” who are preserving the energy of this year’s edition.
“The pandemic has exploded our present reality,” said Jackson, “we were left with these pieces. The festival is coming from a place of complete reimagination.”
As far as the festival’s plans of being virtual and satellite screens, it’s a plan that morphed from March to June to November as the pandemic shifted winds.
Says Putnam, “Where we landed, was a pretty big swing.”
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