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Five Things They Don’t Tell You About the Sundance Film Festival

I attended the Sundance Film Festival this year for the first time, and while I read every “before you go” guide to the festival, not a single one prepared me for the true experience of the biggest independent film festival in America. I can’t pretend to know what your festival-going experience will be, but here are the top five things I learned that no list prepared me for.

5. The Celebrities Leave on the Third Day

If you attend the festival with the hopes of catching a glimpse of anyone higher than C-list, you better be ready to shell out a thousand bucks for a hotel room and not attend any movies. If you want to see some, you know, films during the film festival, you attend the end of the festival and settle for a glut of people who only think they’re celebrities. Everyone you meet is an ‘aspiring filmmaker’ whose ‘cachet is growing’ and who will ‘be in the Festival next year’ ‘according to their sources’. This is as close to a celebrity as you’re going to get in the second half of the fest, so get ready to practice your impressed face.

4. Everyone Gets Sick

Even if you do manage to run into a celebrity, chances are they’ll be hacking too hard to give a shit about your autograph. By the second day, everyone in the often-crowded theaters has shared spit-particles and everyone, from gaffer to producer, is sick. The requisite binge-drinking catches anyone who manages to escape the first round of flu. The rush for the cold and flu section of the supermarket happens on the second day and wipes the shelves clean, leaving behind only a thin snot trail. Speaking of . . .

3. There’s Only One Supermarket (and Not Much Else)

Park City, Utah is exactly as exciting as a small city in Utah. Which is to say, not at all. Don’t be fooled by the idea that the fest may have attracted a hip set of shops to the city. It hasn’t. There’s a Fresh Market open 24/7 that everyone floods during the fest, and a 2-mile long Main Street that contains 100% of the exciting stores Park City has to offer. Salt Lake City is the real den of sin in Utah, but it’s a $90 cab ride away, so you better get used to trail mix and cough syrup being the highlight of your shopping experience.

Park City, Utah

2. Not Every Movie is Independent (or Good)

While it is genuinely unfair to say the festival is fully commercialized and that all the great independents come out of other festivals (Sundance still has a hell of a lot to offer the film community), not every movie that debuts there is a bonafide indie (if there is such a thing). The ‘Premiers’ category is a tricky way for studio films that are in no way independent to get the Sundance label. The Details, a comedy starring Tobey McGuire and Elizabeth banks, looked as ill at-ease in the fest as Paris Hilton. While these films aren’t allowed to compete for the Grand Jury Prizes, they can still masquerade as an independent beside the $7,000 movies because, you know, Sundance.

1. It’s Not That Difficult (or Expensive) to Attend the Festival

Probably the best kept secret of Sundance. There are entire books written about how to attend the festival, as if attending comprised anything more than booking a room, buying tickets and attending movies. It doesn’t. I attended the festival without knowing a single person there, on a very limited budget (the trip cost about $1,000 total) and ended up seeing 12 movies, including the Grand Jury Prize Drama and Documentary. Anyone can do it. There are ungodly cheap rooms a little out of town, the ticket process is mildly bewildering but not impossible (nor do you need advance tickets to see movies) and free shuttles easily transport everyone from venue to venue. If every film lover or film student knew how easy it was to attend Sundance, there’d be a lot more (genuinely interesting) people to talk to waiting in line for the next great film.

Hope to see you there next year!

By Britta R. Moline   2/10/11

For more on independent American cinema–
Four books on the History of Independent Cinema in America

I Am the One and Only: Source Code, Moon and Duncan Jones’ Identity Crisis



14 thoughts on “Five Things They Don’t Tell You About the Sundance Film Festival

  1. Some fun observations. I have been to Sundance for years.

    Though I get that your tone is playful, I do think your cow photo/description of Park City is rather hyperbolic, kinda snide, and condescending.

    Posted by Jeremy | February 10, 2011, 5:23 pm
    • Thanks for the comment Jeremy. Sundance was a phenomenal experience, one that I’ll be sure to repeat in the future. The tone was meant to be playful (and the photo was honestly taken in Park City) and certainly not offensive. My point was mostly that you shouldn’t really expect to go to the festival to shop (unless you’re Oprah and can afford the galleries), but who has time to shop with all the fantastic films, anyway?

      — Britta

      Posted by VideoWordMadeFlesh | February 10, 2011, 5:44 pm
    • I don’t know that it was condescending – Britta is making a good point that I think people who have never been to Sundance may need to know. Cinephiles have no problem with being in a small town with no other distractions. Others may find it helpful to know that the destination is sparse on big city activities. The first time I went I was amazed at how small Park City was. I found it charming though :-).

      Posted by michelle | February 16, 2011, 9:20 pm
  2. I came away with sort of the same feeling. We were there for my son who had a supporting role in one of the Premiere movies. It helps to be part of a cast for connections to invites. He was networking and enjoying himself while watching some interesting flicks (not all good). I’m sure it will not be his last time there.

    Posted by DadinWestchester | February 14, 2011, 1:27 pm
    • Thanks for the post! It’d be ideal to visit the Fest with some actual credentials and a few party invites. (Although to be honest my very favorite film screenings were the Midnight showings, which would certainly cut into any potential party time). What an awesome experience that must have been!

      Posted by VideoWordMadeFlesh | February 16, 2011, 10:37 pm
  3. A remark above stated “I do think your cow photo/description of Park City is rather hyperbolic, kinda snide, and condescending.”

    I don’t see a photo of a cow, but I do see a photo of two horses. Perhaps some people need to get out into the country a little more?

    Posted by Richard | February 19, 2011, 10:47 am
  4. The comment about the condescending issue was unnecessary, someone needs to lighten up. Oh but what a wonderful review with actual insight. I’ve been to festival every year since I was about 18.

    Posted by Jason | February 22, 2011, 12:40 am


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