Amy Roberts: The future of the festival — IRL or URL?

By now, we should all be recovering from a collective hangover at Sundance. Moviegoers should recover from the madness of rushing from movie to movie; service workers should make up lost hours of sleep after working two and sometimes three shifts each day of the festival; those who ended up “on the list” should recover from wearing impractical shoes on one of the many open-bar parties; and others are expected to expire after a long, intense and eventful week.

Park Record columnist Amy Roberts.

But that’s all in a “normal” world. The pre-COVID kind, when maximum occupancy rules were generally ignored and we were blessed with six inches of space between humans, let alone a requested six feet. This year was quite different. Even more different than the 2021 festival. Although the two were held virtually, last year I felt like I was pumping the brakes, this year I felt a little more whiplash.

A year ago, people understood and accepted that the Sundance Film Festival had to be virtual. There was no vaccine readily available yet and the decision to go online was made long before flights and hotel reservations were booked. This year’s festival? Not really. The decision to switch from IRL to URL was made with just two weeks notice, leaving those who had pre-purchased ticket packages, accommodation and other expenses with all the thrill of winning a Razzie.



Understandably, if not applauded, Sundance canceled the in-person event this year. And, as a non-profit organization with a considerable amount of up-front expenses and financial obligations, it’s understandable that they can’t issue full refunds. It is also understandable that many people are unhappy with this policy. I can see both sides, but I would probably only see one side if I had spent a couple hundred dollars on a package that included in-person events that didn’t happen.

Last year there was plenty of time to plan and promote a virtual festival, and although organizers reduced the typically 10-day event to seven and screened just over half the average number of feature films, total viewership was still 2.7 times greater than normal, with viewers from all 50 states and 120 countries tuning in. Those kind of numbers just aren’t possible in person. Flipping the script, the GDPs (people in black) spent about $135 million in the state and generated about $18 million in state and local taxes the last time the festival was held in person. Those kind of numbers just aren’t possible online.



A decision will therefore have to be made fairly quickly. As a non-profit organization, the paraphrased mission of the Sundance Institute states that it is dedicated to the discovery and development of independent artists and aims to introduce the public to the work of filmmakers. But like any organization, money matters. And referral dollars and upsells for in-person events are tougher when the action is limited to laptop viewing.

For another plot twist, the festival’s contract isn’t up for renewal for a few years, but there is an “opt-out” clause, which would allow Sundance to roll credits over his time in Park City after the 2023 event. It’s a little confusing, but essentially because the Institute moved from its Silver Star home to its current location on Kearns Boulevard in 2019, it looks like the opt-out could be activated if you wish it.

Although it’s probably not likely. The decision to do so is expected to be made within the next month, and it doesn’t seem likely that the Institute is ready to fully commit to a virtual-only future. But in a few years, who knows? There could be a very different backdrop.

Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident, and proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis. Follow her on Twitter @amycroberts.

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