Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson On How 2021 Edition Will Play Out In Park City, Online And At An Art House Near You

Sundance Film Festival Tabitha Jackson
Jemal Countess; Sundance

The Sundance Film Festival on Wednesday unveiled more details about its 2021 edition, which will span not only its Park City hub as previously announced but also several art houses and drive-ins nationwide, along with an online viewing platform so that all can partake and enjoy the fest during the pandemic.

The initial lineup of filmswill be announced in a couple of weeks, along with the full talks and events programs. This year’s Sundance runs January 28-February 3.

The Egyptian Theater will not be one of the participating cinemas for Sundance 2021 due to the pandemic. AP

Of note, the only cinema that will be operating at this point in time in Park City will be the Ray, a venue that Sundance oversees. The Eccles at Park City High School, one of the fest’s prime premiere cinemas, is currently closed. I understand an awards program will occur, though it is in the early stages of planning what its exact format will be.

Sundance’s extending programming to art houses across the nation is in an effort to revive those cinemas during the pandemic recession and also to share the festival’s spirit (see the list of venues below). It’s still being worked out exactly which films from the fest will screen at the individual theater partners, though one goal is to get the Los Angeles-area drive-ins listed below to premiere every Sundance 2021 feature at their venues. The satellite screens will feature a curated list of Sundance selections, while also hosting events and artist meet-ups. The Sundance Institute will program screenings at the Ray in Park City as well as the Rose Bowl and Mission Tiki drive-ins in L.A. There is a chance more cinemas, in particular those abroad, may be added.

“These partners are the backbone of independent artistic communities across the country, where filmmakers are born and cinephiles are developed,” said newly appointed Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson, who hit the ground running this year, promptly planning for a pandemic-impacted 2021 fest. “We’re entering these partnerships because a healthy ecosystem for artists and audiences requires that independent cinemas across the country survive and thrive.”

While this is certainly an anomaly set-up given the pandemic, Jackson tells Deadline “There are lots of elements of this that we’re trying. We’re taking this opportunity to experiment with some things, I would bet that community partnerships are going to be the norm. How they express themselves in terms of films being screened during the festival that’s to be discussed with industry filmmakers, rightsholders, etc.”

Day One films are set to debut on the Sundance digital platform starting Thursday, January 28, at 6 p.m. MT. Seventy-plus feature titles will premiere online in a dedicated time slot, followed by a live Q&A. That live portion is key: Many fall film festivals offered up pre-recorded conversations of filmmakers and cast chatting following their film premieres, and the whole idea here for Sundance is to create as much of an interaction and congregation as possible between talent and festivalgoers. It’s all part of creating a dynamic, collective spirit to the festival.

Multiple films will premiere simultaneously roughly every three hours from 10 a.m-10 p.m. MT. Viewers can also begin films any time within three hours of their premiere’s start. All films will return to the platform two days after their premiere for a “second screening,” offered on-demand for 24 hours. The press will not be able to see the movies in advance, but rather initially with everyone else at a pic’s first premiere. The platform’s movie player is powered by Shift72 and developed with best-in-industry security and access practices. In a festival first, the entire 70-plus feature lineup on the platform will be closed-captioned on-demand, and Q&As will be live-captioned.

Palm Springs
“Palm Springs” Courtesy of Hulu

Sundance is a place where following a film’s world premiere reviews are aflame and industry buzz is ignited, culminating in big deals (i.e., this year’s Palm Springs pickup by Neon and Hulu for $22 million, the biggest acquisition ever for Sundance). So can this new order of digital and national art house plays fill that void?

“Because it’s part of the function of a festival to generate energy, buzz and excitement around new work and new voices, at the beginning of this year, we didn’t know if we’d have work to show. We’re seeing a huge amount of work now. We have the work,” Jackson said. “One of the roles of the festival is to give that work the best possible launch pad. Even though the core of the festival is online, we’ve been thinking hard of how we generate buzz. That’s why we’re having live premieres slotted at particular times.”

“We’re making sure eyes are on the films, that they’re being seen by general audiences, industry and press at the same time so they can be launched in the culture, and thus propel the work through distribution channels.”

“We want to work with our satellite screen programs and drive-ins to make sure that we’re generating as much as we can, a single conversation in a moment about a single film. We’re not an on-demand service,” she added.

The festival’s digital platform will also feature many of the panels, fireside chats, the Artist Lounge and musical performances associated with the event from its partners and sponsors. The platform’s Main Street will act as both an homage to the iconic Park City thoroughfare and as an extension of the festival’s core programming.

Sundance will program 50 short films and world premieres of four episodic works. Fourteen works will be curated for the fest’s New Frontier section, which showcases innovative pieces at the crossroads of film, art and technology. The digital platform will allow virtual attendees to engage with the works, the artists, and each other via a bespoke platform, accessible via computer and VR headsets.

Sundance Film Festival tickets and passes will be sold to the general public on a full-run, single-day and single-screening basis beginning January 7.

“We’ll see what works for us, the industry and the artists,” Jackson said. “I wouldn’t want this [coming year’s] festival to be seen as a blueprint for the future, but it’s being responsive to the moment and allowing us to learn what we want the future to be.”

Said Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam: “Our festival footprint has changed this year, but we are excited to bring an incredible community together in new ways to engage with new artists and new stories — whether they’re joining us for the first year or have been for decades. Our ambition is for everyone to come together, safely, wherever they may be, and participate in screenings on our platform at the same time. The Sundance team has consulted with artists, worked with incredible partners, and built a plan to welcome new audiences and capture a true festival spirit.”

Participating U.S. partner organizations and Sundance Film Festival cinema locations include:

Birmingham with Sidewalk Film Festival
Sidewalk Film Center, Sidewalk Drive-In
Arizona: Tucson with The Loft Cinema
The Loft Open Air Cinema

Montclair with American Cinematheque
Mission Tiki Drive-In
Pasadena with the Rose Bowl
Rose Bowl Drive-In
San Francisco with The Roxie Theater
Roxie Theater, Fort Mason Drive-In

Denver with Denver Film
Sie FilmCenter

Key West with Tropic Cinema
Tropic Cinema, The Key West Lighthouse, The Truman Little White House, The Ernest Hemingway House and Museum
Miami with Third Horizon and O Cinema
South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center

Atlanta with Atlanta Film Society
The Plaza Theater, Plaza Drive-In, Dad’s Garage Drive-In
Macon with Macon Film Festival
Douglass Theatre

Honolulu with Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA)

Iowa City with FilmScene
FilmScene at The Chauncey

Wichita with microcinema, Wichita Art Museum, Groover Labs

Louisville with The Speed Art Museum
Speed Art Museum

New Orleans with New Orleans Film Society
The Broad Theater

Baltimore with Maryland Film Festival
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theater

Brookline with Coolidge Corner Theatre
Coolidge Corner Theatre

Detroit with Cinema Detroit

Minneapolis-St. Paul with FilmNorth
Riverview Theater

New York
Pleasantville with The Jacob Burns Film Center
Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab

Columbus with Gateway Film Center
Gateway Film Center

Tulsa with Circle Cinema
Circle Cinema, Circle Cinema Drive-In, Admiral Twin Drive-In, Philbrook Museum, OSU-Tulsa, Tulsa University, Gilcrease Museum

Philadelphia with BlackStar Film Festival

Puerto Rico
San Juan with Asociación de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (AdocPR)
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR)

South Carolina
Columbia with The Luminal Theater
Spotlight Cinemas Capitol 8

Memphis with Indie Memphis
Malco Summer Drive-In
Nashville with Belcourt Theatre
Belcourt Theatre

Austin with Austin Film Society
AFS Cinema
Dallas with Aviation Cinemas
Texas Theatre
Houston with Houston Cinema Arts Society
MoonStruck Drive-In, DeLUXE Theater

Park City
The Ray
Salt Lake City with Salt Lake Film Society

Seattle with Northwest Film Forum

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