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Sundance Opens for Business: Press and Industry Passes for 2021 Festival on Sale with Virtual Options

Expect the festival to be largely virtual with "extremely limited" in-person screenings.

The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre is seen on the sixth day of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre is seen on the sixth day of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2020, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

After months of uncertainty over the exact shape the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will take amid the pandemic, organizers have released the most substantive set of information yet, as the festival on Thursday began selling industry passes and accepting applications for press accreditation. The high points: Expect next January’s festival to be a largely virtual affair, with in-person screenings — if they can happen — “extremely limited.” And access to the full online lineup is guaranteed only to top-tier passholders.

Back in August, the festival began to firm up plans for the 2021 edition. Set for January 28 to February 3, the upcoming festival will be truncated to seven days compared to the typical 10. Earlier in the summer, newly installed festival director Tabitha Jackson said the festival is planning for a range of scenarios to adapt to the pandemic.

As press and industry pass applications became available Thursday, it’s clear that Sundance is hedging its bets on a largely online experience. Organizers are busy building and testing a custom web platform that will screen premieres, events, talks, and XR exhibitions, Sundance Institute leaders wrote in an email to press. Movies will be available online both as live premieres with Q&As and for on-demand viewing afterwards.

While the festival is planning for a much smaller physical footprint in Park City and exploring collaborations with independent theaters around the world for in-person screenings, it’s still unclear exactly what that will look like. Organizers are setting expectations for industry pass-holders: “Provided that in-person festival events take place (subject to location-based health and safety protocols), All-Access pass holders may request a ticket for public in-person screenings, subject to availability. Please note that capacity is expected to be extremely limited,” reads a document on Sundance’s website.

Meanwhile, the festival is encouraging press to “think of the online festival as the center of your Sundance experience this year,” mirroring the move by the Toronto International Film Festival to limit press and industry screenings during the September festival to online-only.

But Sundance’s strategy differers in other ways from TIFF, which was the first major festival to hold an online edition amid the pandemic. Press and industry members enjoyed a nearly all-you-could-eat on-demand experience that allowed viewers to screen films during specific windows at the Canadian festival.

Sundance is offering a two industry passes. The standard pass, at $500, provides access to all live online premieres, but on a first-come, first-served basis — capacity is limited, but the festival has yet to clarify what that means. Those unable to access a live premiere will be able to watch films on-demand during a specific window, but standard pass-holders are restricted to view no more than 10 titles.

For budget-minded publicists, freelance programmers, and smaller distributors accustomed to roaming Park City’s theaters to help map out their work for the next year, it’s going to be a major adjustment. In typical years, theaters screening the buzziest films fill up fast, but many standard pass-holders find they’re able to snag a seat if they’re willing to line up early.

This year, they’ll be faced with the potential of vastly restricted viewing, or paying for the all-access pass, which costs $2,500. That pass comes with guaranteed access to all live online premieres, plus unmetered on-demand access.

While it’s hard to compare the 2021 festival to those in any other year, passes for the upcoming edition are cheaper than in years past. The top-tier industry pass in 2019, which offered guaranteed access to all premieres, cost $4,000. The cheapest pass, which offered first come, first served access, cost $750.

The 2021 pricing structure is likely meant to steer industry members toward the more expensive pass and comes as the pandemic has hit Sundance’s finances hard. In the summer, the Sundance Institute announced a series of layoffs and consolidations while continuing to support filmmakers through its grants and workshops, including the Respond and Reimagine Plan, the first-ever Women at Sundance | Adobe Fellowship, and Sundance Collab.

All press and industry passes this year offer worldwide access to screenings, while public access will be geoblocked. Additionally, all passes include access to all short and episodic selections, the New Frontier program, and online talks and events.

The festival hasn’t released additional information on public tickets and passes.

Another area where Sundance is taking a different approach than TIFF is press access. While TIFF reduced the total number of accredited media for its 2020 edition, Sundance is signaling an interest in increasing that number. “We also hope that the online festival will give press who have not previously attended in person a new opportunity to engage with Sundance in a digital space,” reads an email sent to members of the press on Wednesday.

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