Experiencing the Sundance Film Festival

2016 was my first year attending the Sundance Film Festival, and the experience was everything I had imagined and more. In four and a half days, I watched 18 feature films, 8 shorts, and a half-dozen virtual reality exhibits. That’s an average of four films a day, seeing as many as six in a single day.

One of the coolest things about the festival is that all the while, I was talking with other cinephiles about which movies to see, and frantically trying to obtain tickets to those films. Many attendees work in the industry, many are locals, and some are press covering the event.  I consider myself extremely lucky; I was able to get in to almost every movie I attempted (you can read about my favorites here).  I learned a lot while attending the festival, and would like to share some of the highlights of the experience.


Opening Weekend – Salt Lake City

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I spent the first weekend of the festival almost entirely in Salt Lake City, which is a very different experience from Park City. I was given a pass to the Grand Theater as a gift from my awesome girlfriend (which prompted the trip in the first place). This pass gives you access to all movies playing in the Grand Theater (in SLC) for Friday through Sunday. The disadvantage to this is that you don’t choose which movies you see, but the advantage is that you’re guaranteed excellent seats for some of the toughest tickets of the festival. At the beginning of the festival, no one knows which movies will be the hits, but the programming at the Grand Theater was excellent.

The first weekend is by far the craziest time to be in Park City. Several people I talked to were unable to get the tickets they were seeking, even via the e-waitlist. If your primary focus is seeing films (which is what I recommend if you travel alone), the Grand Theater pass is a great way to do that. Several of the screenings were attended by major celebrities (who also fielded the Q&As), including Daniel Radcliffe, Paul Dano, Viggo Mortensen, and Anderson Cooper.

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Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in the Q&A for “Swiss Army Man.”

The flip side of this is that by being in Salt Lake City, you miss out on the crazy Park City atmosphere of opening weekend, including the casual celebrity sightings, parties, and musical performances. There’s only so much time in the weekend, so you end up being pulled in 3 or 4 directions at once and just have to choose what to do; all options are awesome. For me, the tradeoff of being in Salt Lake City was absolutely worth it (and the choice was easy given that I already had the pass).

While in Salt Lake City, I was also able to catch the Shorts I Program, which included Killer, a short featuring my friend Richard Price.  Biases aside, Killer in particular was incredible, and the other films featured were also extremely creative and well-executed.  Two noteworthy examples were Speaking is Difficult (a grueling walk through every major mass shooting in the U.S. in the last 4 years), and Maman(s), a personal story of a child’s reaction to gaining a second mother figure.

Movies seen: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Other People, Wiener-Dog, Maggie’s Plan, Shorts I Program, Swiss Army Man, Goat, Under the Shadow, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt and Anderson Cooper, Gleason, Love and Friendship, Captain Fantastic.

For my take on these films and more, check out my review post.


Monday and Tuesday – Park City

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My trip to Sundance wouldn’t be complete without spending a couple of days in Park City. While the sheer number of people had died down a bit from the opening weekend, the incredible energy of the festival was very much alive. Every restaurant and bar in Park City was full of movie-goers. Performances within the “Music Café” were audible on the streets, and practically everyone was talking about the films they had just seen.

Purchasing tickets in and of itself is a process. Your first option is to buy a pass (such as the one I had for the Grand Theater).  That said, the less restrictive passes are prohibitively expensive, so usually the best bet is to buy single tickets for movies at the box office.  Tickets are constantly in flux; a screening might be sold out at one moment, but become available mere minutes later.  Even if tickets never become available at the box office, the e-waitlist is still an option.  The e-waitlist works like this: exactly two hours before the screening, you register for a waitlist number (generated at random within the first 15 seconds).  If you get a low number, it is likely you will have an opportunity to buy a ticket at the screening when someone inevitably doesn’t show up.  This is usually the best way to get into the really popular films.

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Last ticket of the festival for me: a midnight showing of The Lure

I feel very lucky that I was able to get tickets to basically everything I wanted. I just visited the Main Box Office on Monday mid-morning, and many previously sold-out world premieres suddenly had tickets available. I ended up using the e-waitlist for two films, both of which worked out (the most risky being an 8:30 am gamble that ended up paying off – people tend to sleep in).

Movies seen: As You Are, Outlaws and Angels, Antibirth, The Intervention, Kiki, Lovesong, The Lure.

For my take on these films and more, check out my review post.


New Frontiers Virtual Reality

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Full-body motion capture VR

One of the non-movie experiences I made time for was the New Frontiers VR showcase. This portion of the festival has greatly expanded in the past year, featuring more than 50 different virtual reality experiences. These range from the more primitive Mobile VR exhibits (which can be played on a smart phone and Google Cardboard or other plastic casing) to full on immersive VR technology.

Virtual reality is being billed as the future of entertainment, and I have to say that I agree. I don’t believe that it will replace movies or anything like that, as they are fundamentally different forms of entertainment. The fully immersive exhibits in particular really do feel as though you are in the world of the game.  Perhaps the most promising use for VR in the future is documentary filmmaking for a cause.  Because the VR places the viewer on the scene, it becomes far easier to empathize with life across the globe.

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A Virtual Reality image taken at the Egyptian Theater at Sundance.  It can be viewed using a Google Cardboard when downloaded to a smartphone.

That being said, I do have some complaints about how Sundance handles the VR exhibit. While there are 50 or so different experiences, there is still a limited number of VR headsets, which means you have to put yourself on a waitlist of 2 hours or more for a one to two minute experience. I think Sundance should be a little more selective on which experiences they feature, as it is impossible to know which ones are interesting and for what reason. For that matter, half the VR exhibits are literally played on a smartphone, which most people at the festival possess. Google Cardboards are given away at the exhibit, so why not simply allow people to download the experiences on their own phones? Seems like an easy way to get around the lack of equipment.

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Lucasfilm showing off their full room Star Wars VR scene.

I think perhaps Sundance is not the best place to experience some of this tech; somewhere like CES or SXSW are probably better-equipped to show off the new technology. However, I must say I was extremely impressed with the virtual reality on display, and I look forward to the equipment in future iterations.


Overall, I had a fantastic time at Sundance, and really recommend the experience to anyone.  Unlike the horror stories that I’ve heard of conventions like contemporary San Diego Comic Con, Sundance was extremely welcoming to people outside of the business.  Tickets are always available, and there are a ton of non-ticketed events to attend.  There is no “wait in line for one thing for the entire day,” the most anyone waits for movie tickets is a half an hour.  I certainly hope to attend the festival again one day, and I intend to check out other film festivals (Toronto, Cannes, etc.) in future years as well.

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