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Sundance 2021 Reveals How the Virtual Festival Will Work For 70-Plus Films In 7 Days

As it readies a reduced lineup and some ambitious physical events around the country, Sundance is ready to explain how the unusual edition will take place.

A view overlooking Main Street 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)

A view overlooking Main Street during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

Like most events scheduled in the midst of the pandemic, January’s Sundance Film Festival will not look like its usual self. For months, America’s most prominent gathering of the film community indicated plans for a mostly online affair, with some drive-in screenings and events at arthouses around the country. The festival reduced its timeline to seven days from the usual 11, and will take place January 28 through February 3.

Now, less than two weeks before it unveils its lineup, Sundance announced specifics about the form it will take and how it will reach audiences.

The entire program will be available on festival.sundance.org to passholders and ticket buyers across the United States, in addition to some international territories that have yet to be finalized. The festival is also planning at least one physical screening for each film in its lineup, as well as drive-in options in Los Angeles and Park City. More than 25 arthouses around the country, from Alabama to Puerto Rico, will partner with Sundance for screenings and events. Its full slate of talks, as well as the New Frontier, XR, and emerging media programs, will be available around the world.

“Slippers instead of snow boots” is how new Sundance director Tabitha Jackson described the experience of the 2021 edition for most festivalgoers, since they will be swapping the cold hustle of a Utah mountain town for experiencing the festival at home.

The program will be accessible through a custom-built virtual platform, with screenings that use the Shift72 player that’s become an industry standard for virtual film festivals. “This whole festival feels like a prototype of some kind,” Jackson said. “It’s a grand experiment.”

Programmers are finalizing a lineup of 70-plus features, 50 short films, and four episodic works. Passholders will either gain immediate access or need to request space in advance, depending on the level of their accreditation. A three-hour availability window begins at each film’s scheduled start time. Two days after their premieres, all films will have a second screening window, this one for 24 hours.

“You’ve got to make a schedule and work your way through it,” Jackson said. “Because you’re not running between venues, the possibility of seeing more films is higher.”

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2020 file photo, the marquee of the Egyptian Theatre promotes the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Festival organizers said selections from next year’s edition will also play in at least 20 other cities, radically enlarging Sundance’s scope and potentially connecting it more deeply with local communities. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP, File)

The Egyptian Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival in 2020.

Arthur Mola/Invision/AP

The lineup marks a significant decrease from the 118 titles in the 2020 lineup, but a festival representative (correctly) described the reduced figure as proportional when reducing the 11-day festival to seven. Jackson said the decision is a matter of  bandwidth. “Having a team for 70-plus live Q&As is a lot,” she said. “And since we’ve also committed to give every film a safe in-person commitment, that’s a big resource commitment.”

That did not make programming any easier, she said. The 2020 edition received 14,200 entries, and Jackson said that 2021 submission figures were consistent with previous years. “At the beginning of this whole process, the programming team genuinely didn’t know if it would be feast or famine,” she said. “Lo and behold, our figures are pretty similar than they normally are, and we are making harder decisions. There were tears shed this year about films we could not take.”

Some aspects remain unchanged. The schedule will adhere to Mountain Standard Time, starting with online opening events at 6 p.m. on the first night and several Day One films screening at once. From there, roughly five films will premiere per day, beginning at 10 a.m. Around three films will screen in the morning, and additional slots will be allocated between 1 p.m. and 10 p.m. That rhythm will taper off by Monday and the festival will culminate with a live awards ceremony broadcast on Wednesday. “We are trying things to preserve the energy of the festival with the online platform,” Jackson said.

Of course, some aspects of Sundance simply don’t translate to the online realm, including the organic social experience of  waiting in line for movies, being crowded on buses, and fighting for space at an afterparty bar. Nevertheless, Jackson said her team aimed to replicate that with a virtual waiting room with a chat function. “You can bump into someone in the waiting room,” Jackson said, “without freezing your ass off.”

Though Sundance attendance can be a privileged experience in the best of times, many in the film community depend on attending it at the start of each year, and some have expressed concerns about maintaining the same level of access they would have under normal circumstances. As with previous editions, press access will be divided into two tiers, while industry attendees can purchase either an all-access industry pass for $2,500 or a standard industry pass for $500.

Jackson declined to offer specifics on virtual-screening capacities, but said that it would be larger than the real-world versions. “We’ve been talking to every film team individually, and what we’ve come up is that you’re more likely to be able to get into films this year than you would on the matter because our capacity is bigger,” she said.

She added that while attendees with higher-tier badges will have an easier job gaining access, the capacity limits for virtual screenings would allow any attendees who sign up early enough to explore the lineup the same way they would in person. “We’re confident that people can get into stuff,” she said. “It’s what the artists want — the industry to see their films. The business of getting the films on a distribution path to audiences is really key.”

Jackson said the festival would lean into its marketplace impact. “There are lots of films for sale this year, lots of new voices,” she said. “We are doubling down on the mission to be a discovery festival.”

Sundance benefited from watching other prominent festivals experiment with virtual and in-person events, including New York Film Festival and TIFF. Last month, NYFF reported a record-high 70,000 viewers across 50 states. Sundance is banking on a similar expansion in viewership. “The form of the festival is a necessary response to the moment informed by our values, but it’s also a platform that can really expand the reach of this independent community of artists,” Jackson said.


Park City, Utah during Sundance 2019

George Loch for IndieWire

The general public also will be able to purchase tickets for virtual screenings, though the festival has yet to determine a timeline for making them available. “The slippers-instead-of-snow-boots thing is a nice way of thinking about how you can buy a single ticket to a film you want to see and that can be your first Sundance,” Jackson said. “And if you don’t have the funds to do those things, all our talks and events will be free and globally accessible, as long as you’ve got an internet connection.”

Sundance has assembled a list of theatrical venues that it will collaborate with around the country, though it remains unclear how each one will pull off its physical events. “This does feel like the right-sized group for us to work with in a meaningful way,” Jackson said. “They’ve doing all been kind of innovation across the summer. Some of them are ready to go live outdoors or with drive-ins. Others — if public health allows — are able to go indoors, but that’s a big ‘if.'”

Confirmed drive-in events will take place at the Rose Bowl and the Mission Tiki in Los Angeles. In Park City, The Ray will host indoor, socially distant screenings. The festival is also exploring around 15 international partners for screening events. “When you just look down that list of places that will be gathering during a strange painful time and a divided country, with a new administration coming in, it’s important to have them all,” Jackson said.

The usual chaos of Park City’s Main Street, where overnight breakout stars and filmmakers slide down the icy pavement alongside industry insiders, will go dormant. The festival’s online hub, however, will include “Main Street,” “Artists Lounge,” and “Festival Village” sections for social engagement. “I want to be able to capture some of the craziness that will be going on this year in the safety and privacy of people’s homes,” Jackson said.

With vaccines on the horizon, Sundance views its 2021 edition as a temporary setup, but Jackson acknowledged some tweaks might stick around. “I’m very attracted to the collaborative nature with different communities across the country and beyond, if possible,” she said. “We’re part of an ecosystem and if any part of that is weakened, then so are we. So how do we work together to get this work made, the artists paid, and the culture reflective of the independent community?”

The festival director will remains at home with family in Connecticut, but said she hoped to make it to Los Angeles in the coming weeks, followed by a potential road trip to Park City. “I’m trying to figure it out,” she said. “There’s something in my soul that wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t show my face there.”

The full list of participating arthouses is below. The Sundance lineup will be announced mid-December.

Birmingham with Sidewalk Film Festival
Sidewalk Film Center, Sidewalk Drive-In
Arizona: Tucson with The Loft Cinema
The Loft Open Air Cinema

Montclair with American Cinematheque
Mission Tiki Drive-In
Pasadena with the Rose Bowl
Rose Bowl Drive-In
San Francisco with The Roxie Theater
Roxie Theater, Fort Mason Drive-In

Denver with Denver Film
Sie FilmCenter

Key West with Tropic Cinema
Tropic Cinema, The Key West Lighthouse, The Truman Little White House, The Ernest Hemingway House and Museum
Miami with Third Horizon and O Cinema
South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center

Atlanta with Atlanta Film Society
The Plaza Theater, Plaza Drive-In, Dad’s Garage Drive-In
Macon with Macon Film Festival
Douglass Theatre

Honolulu with Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA)

Iowa City with FilmScene
FilmScene at The Chauncey

Wichita with mama.film
mama.film microcinema, Wichita Art Museum, Groover Labs

Louisville with The Speed Art Museum
Speed Art Museum

New Orleans with New Orleans Film Society
The Broad Theater

Baltimore with Maryland Film Festival
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theater

Brookline with Coolidge Corner Theatre
Coolidge Corner Theatre

Detroit with Cinema Detroit

Minneapolis-St. Paul with FilmNorth
Riverview Theater

New York
Pleasantville with The Jacob Burns Film Center
Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab

Columbus with Gateway Film Center
Gateway Film Center

Tulsa with Circle Cinema
Circle Cinema, Circle Cinema Drive-In, Admiral Twin Drive-In, Philbrook Museum, OSU-Tulsa, Tulsa University, Gilcrease Museum

Philadelphia with BlackStar Film Festival

Puerto Rico
San Juan with Asociación de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (AdocPR)
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR)

South Carolina
Columbia with The Luminal Theater
Spotlight Cinemas Capitol 8

Memphis with Indie Memphis
Malco Summer Drive-In
Nashville with Belcourt Theatre
Belcourt Theatre

Austin with Austin Film Society
AFS Cinema
Dallas with Aviation Cinemas
Texas Theatre
Houston with Houston Cinema Arts Society
MoonStruck Drive-In, DeLUXE Theater

Park City with The Ray
Salt Lake City with Salt Lake Film Society

Seattle with Northwest Film Forum

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