Lines, Lights and The Next Big Hit

First-timer's guide to the Sundance Film Festival: Insider tips from a pro

First-timer's guide to Sundance Film Festival: Insider tips from a pro

News_Sundance Film Festival_Egyptian Theater
The Egyptian Theatre in downtown Park City, Utah, is one of the more charming venues for the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Jemal Countess, courtesy of Sundance Institute

The Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s largest independent film festival, kicks off later this month in Park City, Utah. I have attended the 10-day festival for the last decade and I’ve covered it for CultureMap for the last six years. When I tell friends I’m going to Sundance, their universal response is “Oh, I love movies. That sounds like so much fun.  I’d love to go.”  And there is indeed a lot to love, although there are some drawbacks as the festival becomes increasingly popular and seeks to more aggressively capitalize on its brand. 

For those who ask me what it’s like, here is a description, and some tips to lessen the frustration. 

The History and Scope

In 1984, Hollywood legend Robert Redford started The Sundance Film Festival as a way to showcase independent films and filmmakers. It was initially held in Park City’s one theater on Main Street. At the time, Redford himself stood outside the theater and encouraged passersby to see the films. 

Today the festival attracts nearly 50,000 film lovers who view 113 narrative and documentary films along with 68 short films  that are shown at nine theaters in Park City, as well as in nearby Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo venues. It doesn’t stop with films. There is continuous entertainment — free concerts on Main Street, virtual reality exhibits and, of course, gifting and VIP suites for Hollywood’s filmmakers, actors, publicists and distributors who migrate to Sundance for the first five days of the Festival’s 10-day run.

The Venues

The nucleus of the Festival is the ski town of Park City, 30 miles east of Salt Lake City. Park City, with 8,000 fulltime residents, is one of the world’s great ski towns. The population can grow tenfold during ski holiday season and events like Sundance. As I write this column, it is minus 17 degrees in Park City with snow expected every day. To be fair, there can be nice days, but a nice day at the Sundance Film Festival would be 40 degrees and sunshine. 

Despite the cold, Park City is a friendly, charming town that has a vibe of Mardi Gras for an upwardly mobile, slightly older crowd. The food choices are plentiful if a bit pricey, and there are numerous stops on Main Street to sample music, roundtables, arts and technology exhibits. During the festival’s first weekend, you are likely to run into a celebrity at the local Starbucks, buying groceries at the market or window shopping on Main Street.

Because there are few movie theaters in Park City, the festival converts a number of other venues to movie theaters. So expect to watch movies in a high school auditorium, public library, synagogue, covered tennis court, and hotel ballroom in addition to the three movie theaters. Films are also shown in a screening room at Redford’s Sundance Resort, in Provo, 40 miles south of Park City and Salt Lake City,which, with its six theaters, has became a more cost effective alternative to Park City. 

The biggest surprise for first timers is that Park City theater locations are spread out some seven miles across town. It requires planning, transportation and a good bit of time to attend your choice of screenings. The good news is that connecting buses are free and plentiful, and the drivers are helpful and cheerful.

The Hardest Part — Tickets

At first glance, getting tickets to the Sundance Film Festival seems like a snap. Ticketing is open to anyone; you just must sign up before early October of each year. Information is available on the festival’s website, Sundance sends an email that explains ticket options, prices and the time they go on sale.

But the system is complicated and changes ever year. 

Let's start with individual tickets for which there are three ways to get. You can purchase them after the ticket package purchasers select their tickets. Most people find this option lacking. The best analogy is that it is like going to an after-Christmas sale at the end of January and expecting to find something in your size that you like. Other options are going to to box office at 8 am the day of the showing where a limited number of tickets are released each day or using the waitlist.  The waitlist allows you to take a number electronically via your phone or computer two hours before the film. It tells you what your chances are of getting into the film. All you have to do is sign up and be at the theater 30 minutes early. The wait list actually works well. I have gotten into films even with a waitlist number of over 100 though I have also failed to make it in with a waitlist number 10.  It is all part of the random-ness of Sundance ticketing.

Then it gets more complicated.

There are ticket passes and ticket packages. Passes allow you to attend any film on the roster at certain times. For example, the Express Pass, that offers unlimited movies during the first four days of the festival, will run you $3,500—rather hefty considering that even if you saw movies from opening to closing for four days you would be hard pressed to see over 24 movies. That translates to $80 a film. There is the Off-Peak Pass that provides admittance to any film before 11 am or after 10 pm and the  Eccles Theater Pass for all films at the biggest theater which attracts the hottest films and stars. Ticket packages offer a number of tickets (usually 10) that you can use during the first or last part of the festival. Ticket passes and packages for Salt Lake City locations are much cheaper than passes and packages for Park City.

Predictably, the entire world calls or logs in when the packages, passes and tickets go on sale in late October. You can count on Sundance’s systems to crash and a feeding frenzy to grab the limited packages and passes. The key is to remember “you don’t always get what you want.” 

The torture of the ticketing process only deepens when you have paid for your ticket packages (as opposed to passes), as you must then select which movies you wish to see.

To do this you receive a time slot during the first week in January. At your appointed time you and the thousands of other ticket holders in your slot will be allowed to select tickets. Although your time slot is somewhat determined by lottery, you can improve your time slot on the front end by becoming a member of the Sundance Institute for $65, paying more to get a preferential time, or making a bigger donation to the Sundance Institute. In other words, think of the Sundance ticketing process like booking an airline ticket. If you pay extra you get more leg room, and if you pay a little bit more you can have overhead storage. That’s how Sundance has evolved.

Selecting your tickets can be crazy-making. This week, Sundance awarded me one of the last time slots in which to select my tickets. Most of my selections were sold out, so I was left with movies that had a likely potential to be bow wows. After spending 30 minutes choosing films for my 10 tickets, my selections disappeared from my basket. I repeated again and again with the same result. Meanwhile, the few remaining tickets were being scarfed up by people not experiencing the glitch. Getting help from customer service required an hour on hold. By the time the agent could manually manipulate the system to secure tickets, the few tickets that were left for films that I wanted were also gone. Many attendees swear every year that they will never again subject themselves to the stress and frustration of the feeding frenzy for tickets. 

The Festival Itself — a smooth running machine

The free bus system that stops at all of the theaters alleviates the need for a costly rental car. There is no parking at the theaters and only selected parking on the bus routes which, at $20, is no bargain. None of the venues has a lobby large enough to accommodate the departing and incoming audiences, so prepare to arrive at the theater at least 30 minutes before show time and wait in a heated tent. This tent-waiting is not an unpleasant experience. You will meet interesting people, share refreshments, and have a good time if you choose to.

While the bus system works well, traffic, crowds and weather conditions can make getting from one theater to another a frustrating experience. Many first time festival goers make the mistake of scheduling back-to-back films at different locations only to be disappointed when it can take an hour to catch a bus and get to the next location even though the location may be only a mile or so away. 

What is so remarkable about Sundance is its audience of avid film fans. People are considerate and there is an esprit de corps among the audience along with a respect for the medium, which means no cell phones or talking during the film.  

After each film concludes, the cast and filmmakers are introduced and answer questions from the audience. This is the draw for so many of us long time Festival goers. What could be better than asking Norman Lear what he thought of Donald Trump (he was eerily prescient), or asking Anderson Cooper why his mother let herself be filmed without make up, and so it goes. No question is off limits. Once the 15-minute Q&A ends (strictly monitored), the audience files out into the cold and waits yet again in line for a bus to take them to the next venue, where they will wait in line to enter the next theater. 

The Transcendent Sundance Moment

If you have read the above description of Sundance, you might think, “why would anyone put up with the cold, the long lines, inefficient and troubled ticket process, the crowds and the cost?”

I have written in prior years about what I call a “Sundance moment,” those ineffable moments where the audience responds to a film on such an emotional level that the moment imprints itself on your heart. Sometimes the moment comes when you see a film you know is destined for greatness as was the case when Twenty Feet From Stardom premiered in 2013 and went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. Sometimes it is a surprise guest, as when NFL star Steve Gleason, who was the subject of a documentary on his fight with ALS, entered the theater. And sometimes it is a cause that inspires the audience to make the world a better place. Regardless, it is what makes 80 percent of the audience keep coming back.   

Still Want to Go?  Follow these Suggestions

1.     Determine what is important to you.  If you want to be part of the Hollywood buzz and see stars, come the first five days of the festival, though it will be much harder to get tickets (unless you have unlimited money).  If you are more interested in seeing as many films as possible, plan on the second five days of the festival when much of Hollywood has departed. You could also opt for tickets in Salt Lake City venues which are cheaper though admittedly not as much fun as Park City. On the positive side, the winners of the festival are named the ninth day of the festival and shown at various locations on the final day. 

2.    Seek alternatives to hotels.  Hotel rooms will cost you an arm and a leg, especially those on Main Street and the bus route. Seek friends who have homes in Park City, private condos, Airbnb and other options. And the earlier you can plan the most cost effective it will be. 

3.    Capitalize on the various ticketing options.  The ticketing process is complex and relies to some extent on the amount of money you can spend as well as some luck. Even if you don’t get the tickets you want or a pass, Sundance’s standby list has worked for me at least 30 percent of the time. Sundance also releases tickets every morning for the day’s films. You have to stand in line for both the e-waitlist and the day of showing tickets but they can work. 

4.    Be creative.  Many people end up with too many tickets for whatever reason.  Ask on the bus, outside the theaters and in the never-ending lines if anyone has extra tickets for future showings. Carry cash. Each ticket is $20. 

4.  Don't over schedule.  It is easy to underestimate how much time it takes to get from one theater to another. For example, the Temple Theater is only two miles from the other theaters. but it can take an hour to catch a bus at the Temple, be dropped off near the next theater, get to the line and get your seat in the theater. If you aren't in line when the doors open you may not get a good seat and if you cut it too close, your seat will be filled from the waitlist. Bottom line: even for the most avid film goers, it is hard to see more than four films a day. 

5.    Be open.   Sometimes the film with the hokey title that has available seats can be a delight (think Little Miss Sunshine) while the film with the big stars can be a huge dog (pardon the pun but that would be you Weiner-Dogwith Danny Devito and Ellen Burstyn).

6.    Take advantage of the experience. Sundance is a cultural and artistic feast whether you see one film or a dozen films. One of my highlights over the last decade was seeing soul legend Percy Sledge sing “When A Man Loves a Woman” at a free concert on Main Street. He died a year later. You could spend the entire Sundance Festival attending panels, concerts, and visiting exhibits and still have a great time. 

7.    And there is always the snow. There are many people who visit Park City during Sundance with no intention of seeing films because it is the quietest week of the season on the slopes. The only place in Park City where there are no lines. As, I said, there is something for everyone.

Jane Howze will be covering Sundance this year from January 19-29 for CultureMap. You can follow her at @janehowze on Twitter.