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How to Socialize at Sundance 2021 from Your Living Room

All you need is $25 and an internet connection to experience this year's festival in a whole new way.

The virtual New Frontier presentation at Sundance 2021.

Usually, the social experience of the Sundance Film Festival is an exclusive networking opportunity available only to a select few. This year, all you need is $25 and an internet connection to get started.

Park City’s Main Street will go dormant, with the festival unfolding primarily as a virtual affair (along with some physical events at arthouses around the country). However, anyone who purchases the festival’s $25 Explorer Pass can take advantage of inventive ways of engaging with the festival community from a browser. Others, including filmmakers at the festival and those with press or industry accreditation, can do all that and more.

Sundance’s best social options for 2021 require you to create a digital avatar and roam 3D environments, where your face will appear as a small video chat window whenever you approach another person. A year ago, the idea of experiencing the festival this way might have seemed better suited as the plot for one of the futuristic movies up for Sundance’s Alfred P. Sloan prize, or an experimental project designed to comment on the social mechanics of the festival experience programmed by its New Frontier section.

In a way, that’s what happened: The bespoke social platform at this year’s festival was an extension of New Frontier, and provides a whole new way to engage with Sundance from afar. When the pandemic recedes, it may even remain a permanent feature.

Of course, nothing can top the exhilarating experience of party-hopping on the icy streets alongside reams of stars, overnight breakouts, and industry influencers. But Sundance has created an accessible infrastructure that at least provides some measure of connection for those open-minded enough to give it a try. From the comfort of your keyboard, you can create an avatar to wander through film parties and peruse a gallery of New Frontier work. Another Zoom-based site provides visitors with virtual restaurants and lounges to assemble in throughout the festival. Sure, they’ll be stuck in little boxes and surrounded by static art — but it’s better than nothing.  And if you can get your hands on a virtual reality headset, an even more immersive experience awaits.

For 15 years, New Frontier has provided a platform for all kinds of emerging media. It was among the first major curatorial events to provide a dedicated space to VR projects and continued to support creative efforts in AR (augmented reality) as well as XR (mixed reality) as the media continued to grow. These often unclassifiable undertakings took place against the backdrop of a lounge on Main Street where some of the most ambitious storytellers and technological entrepreneurs at the festival took root, far from the standing ovations of the Eccles or the late-night dealmaking.

Yet even as a lot of the Sundance regulars kept their distance, the New Frontier crowd quickly adapted to the possibilities of connecting through new technology, which made the section well-situated to address the absence of a traditional festival gathering this year. Beyond curating a section, this year’s New Frontier team has built the only real way to engage with an official festival environment.

“The community of creative technologists that’s been coming together around New Frontier can take on everything and anything,” said Shari Frilot, who has been curating the section since its inception. “They’ve been figuring out how to tell stories and deal with new technologies in a time when we can’t be together.”

Frilot spent the past year exploring the virtual environments at other festivals in the process of nailing down Sundance’s own solution. Each one took a different approach: The Cannes XR event used the VR environment Museum of Other Realities to host its VR offerings as well as virtual parties. The Venice International Film Festival partnered with VIVEPORT and the social platform VRchat. The London Film Festival created its own bespoke app, which featured a virtual gallery designed to look as if it had been placed beneath the Thames River, where festivalgoers could gather to experience new work.

“I just learned a lot about what works and doesn’t, what fits with who we are, and what we needed to build on our own experience,” Frilot said. Partnering with the digital production studio Active Theory (which counts Spotify and Coachella among its other clients), Sundance has built a series of colorful 3D environments with video chat integration, and it’s not isolated from the rest of the festival: Each of the 73 features in the lineup will be given space for after-parties; all directors in the lineup are receiving headsets from Oculus to get the full experience. Festival attendees can peruse the crowds and roam between several discrete environments.

Naturally, the prospects of exploring a 3D environment risks alienating anyone unfamiliar with modern video games or VR. But many Sundance regulars looking to preserve the communal aspect of the festival would be well-advised to take a stab at these virtual options, even if they seem a bit awkward at first, in the hopes of maintaining a critical part of the festival experience.

Frilot acknowledged that it might be a steep learning curve for some people. “Let’s see how it goes,” she said. “It addresses a vacuum on the landscape that filmmakers who stream their work — and that industry is obviously waxing — who can’t see their audiences for a variety of reasons. That’s really important because it gets in the way of the process for filmmakers. They need to see their audience to have those conversations. So we’ve built a platform that allows them to do that.”

With all that in mind, here are the key steps involved in socializing at Sundance 2020.

Get Situated in the Space Garden

Accredited press and industry members — or anyone who has acquired the $350 Festival Pass or the $75 Day Pass — automatically have access to Sundance’s social spaces as well as New Frontier. But all you really need to get started is the $25 Explorer pass, and those won’t sell out, so there’s still time to join in. The Explorer pass includes access to the Indies Series and Shorts program, as well as New Frontier. Once you buy it, you’ll receive a customized link to the “Space Garden,” a private 3D area where you can build an avatar and access the three main Sundance virtual spaces. Sundance recommends that you use Google Chrome.

Each space can hold up to 250 avatars at a time, but if it reaches capacity, newcomers will be sent into a separate, empty version of the same room. You might look a little sillier than your normal self, but it sure beats standing out in the cold, waiting in line for Sundance parties already bursting at the seams and drowning in the roar of the crowd.

Film Party

Once you create your avatar in the Space Garden, you can get situated by using your keyboard to move around. You’ll find three gleaming portals that will take you to public areas. The first of these is “Film Party,” a giant, pink-hued circular room surrounded by six screens, each of which leads to smaller, more specific parties.

To interact with other people at Film Party, simply walk up to another avatar and their face will appear in a small box above their head; it vanishes when you move away. (Anyone who has toyed with the pixelated party platform Gather has seen a lo-fi version of this). On the right side of your screen, you’ll see a list of everyone in the room, so you can easily find people you know.

The author’s avatar in Sundance’s virtual Film Party space.

While it might feel a little weird at first, Film Party is a fun place to hang around. A virtual bar sits at the center of the room, and the windows provide a sweeping view of outer space, where visitors can glimpse the International Space Station floating above a shimmering animated version of Earth. That’s entirely in tune with the futuristic sensibilities of the New Frontier scene. “It just reflects the reality of our bio digital continuum,” Frilot said, with the ease of someone ordering a pizza.

Once you get situated in Film Party, there are more options. Whenever a movie premieres on Sundance’s streaming platform, a still will appear above one of the screens. If you move your avatar into that image, it will transport you to a private space for that party. (Think of it like a 3D version of a Zoom breakout room.) It’s unclear how many filmmakers will actually take advantage of the opportunity, but this will be the closest they can get to enjoying some kind of public Sundance gathering with adoring crowds.    

The New Frontier Gallery

This year’s New Frontier selections include a diverse range of projects. Half of them are VR and require headsets. However, the gallery itself can be accessed via a browser. Visitors will find themselves in a large room lined with floor-to-ceiling windows (once again looking out at the ISS, space, and the awe-inspiring planet below) as well as vast screens that lead to the various VR, AR, and emerging media works as well as live performances. These include the live-streamed audio-video piece “7 Sounds” and the browser-based “Beyond the Breakdown,” which imagines a futuristic browser on the user’s screen.

However, if you don’t have a VR headset, now might be the time to invest. Oculus just released the latest version of its Quest headset last fall, and it retails for little more than the cost of an upper-level Sundance pass.

Like the rest of the festival, the New Frontier lineup is smaller than usual, but there are a lot of VR options to dig through. These include the latest installment of the 360-video series “4 Feet High,” a touching Argentine docudrama about a teen girl in a wheelchair coming to terms with her sexuality. (A version of “4 Feet High” is also featured in the Indie Episodics section, marking the first time one project is available in two sections of the festival.) Visitors can also venture onto the actual ISS thanks to one portal that leads to “Space Explorers: The ISS Experience,” a high-tech immersion into the space station built by the VR luminaries at Félix & Paul Studios. If you’re a space junkie like this writer, it’s an essential trip.

More interactive options range from the live theater piece “Tinker,” which finds participants experiencing a lifetime of memories alongside an actor who plays their grandfather, the visually transformative British animated work “To Miss the Ending,” and “The Changing Same,” the first installment of an immersive piece on racial injustice in America. Frilot was especially high on that one. “You’re essentially going through an experience and surrounded by what happened before, what’s happening now, and a post-racial utopia at the end,” she said.

A still from <i>The Changing Same: Episode 1</i> by Michèle Stephenson, Joe Brewster and Yasmin Elayat, an official selection of the New Frontier program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“The Changing Same”

Even if you don’t snag a headset for this year’s festival, it’s worth roaming around the New Frontier Gallery in your browser to grasp the presentation of the lineup, and get a better understanding of how virtual environments can actually sustain live, curated events. Also, you might notice one screen that invites you to “go clubbing in Amsterdam!”, and yes, you can do that, too. Well, kind of.

Go Clubbing in Amsterdam!

The advertisement doesn’t exactly lie. Sundance has resurrected a browser-based experience designed last fall by the Amsterdam-based IDFA DocLab called “do {not} play,” which is essentially comprised of different areas where visitors appear as little video screens. In the “Industry Area,” people can roam between virtual lounges or click on tables at a virtual restaurant to catch up with their peers. Another room includes a dedicated space for an activity familiar to many festivalgoers: Karaoke!

Sure, it’s not a huge technological leap from simply setting up a Zoom call and sending the link around, but it allows for more of an improvisatory feel to the proceedings to simply let people know where they can find you and letting them drop by whenever. Or, you can just hang out in a room and try to meet some new faces. You know, just like Sundance.

Cinema House

Again, the best way to take advantage of everything New Frontier has to offer this year is to get your hands on a VR headset. With that, you can access Cinema House, a VR-exclusive environment where visitors can actually watch Sundance movies. The Cinema House will feature a selection of the lineup that includes “Users,” a meditation on modern technology directed by installation artist Natalia Almada, and the international shorts. You can also access the VR projects and other social spaces from there.

In the past decade, VR production has exploded in Europe and Asia, which presents an opportunity for Sundance attendance this year. Frilot said she was betting on VR users from around the world taking advantage of their ability to experience a festival that many have found too distant or out of their price range in the past. “Hopefully, more people will see this year’s projects than ever before,” she said. “We’ve always had this bottleneck of access — only so many headsets and so much space. It was always such a challenge and we were always failing to give access to people who wanted to see the show. Now, everything is online so if you have a headset — and there are millions of headsets out there — you can come and see the show.”

While film festivals moved quickly to virtual solutions in 2020, few are likely to drop the physical component once crowded gatherings become viable again. But Frilot hopes that the infrastructure built for this year’s New Frontier crowd will remain in place. “New Frontier has always been the experiment of Sundance, where we really push the envelope and figure out how emerging technology is affecting cinema culture, and at the same time pushing cinema culture with technology,” she said. “On the film side, it’s not necessarily going to be this way every year, but with New Frontier, why go back?”

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