For many, last year’s Sundance Film Festival marked the last major event before the pandemic roiled the U.S. The 2021 festival kicks off Thursday — yes, in a very different world, but one that organizers have been preparing for months. And after the kinks were worked out at earlier online festivals, the festival attempting to pull off the most interactive virtual festival yet.
The stakes are high: Organizers during the Day One press conference Thursday said they expect their largest festival audience ever, driven by the fact that tickets are available to anyone in the US with a computer and internet connection. In 2020, the festival reported 116,800 people in attendance and 215,873 tickets redeemed.
“‘If you build it, will they come?’ — we weren’t sure,” said Sundance Institute Executive Director/CEO Keri Putnam. “We’ve met and exceeded the goals that we had for audience reach and accessibility. This will be, we think, the largest audience we’ve ever had.”
It’s unclear at this point exactly what that number is, but sources say the audience caps for premiere screenings are (at least in some cases) larger than the capacity of the Eccles. That’s Sundance’s largest brick-and-mortar theater with 1,270-seats. The result is that many premieres will have much larger capacities than would be possible for a first screening in Park City.
“We worked with the stakeholders on the size of the audiences for the festival, the virtual seats. It’s been quite a journey. Where we landed was a pretty big swing,” Putnam said.
The first film screenings begin Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. There are over 70 films that will screen over the next week, from the discoveries of the NEXT section to the usual higher-profile titles in Premieres and U.S. Dramatic Competition. The festival has built the online experience around the supremacy of live premieres that begin throughout the day, where audience members will be able to interact in virtual theater lobbies, participate in live Q&As after the movie ends, and hang out at after parties.
While films are available on demand, Sundance is pushing the live experience more than other virtual festivals have.
“The festival actually is coming from a place of needing to completely reimagine and take the pieces that we know are part of our essence and build them into something different to meet the moment,” Putnam said. “We knew that we had to create and design moments of connection. So how can audiences connect with the work? Well, something seemingly as simple as a live Q&A, but making sure that every single feature film has a live Q&A. That’s a big resource, but it’s absolutely (necessary) because what we heard was that is a significant moment at a festival.
“The other thing was making sure that there’s anticipation around the films, that a film is going to have its premiere at a particular time, you need to scramble to get a ticket. That is the recognizable Sundance experience.”
The festival has also partnered with drive-ins and arthouses around the country for satellite screenings. Screenings originally planned for the Los Angeles area remain canceled, organizers said Thursday.
Most festival passes are sold out. But you can still buy $15 single-film tickets for many films, as well as the $25 Explorer pass, which offers access to immersive experiences and the Indie Series, New Frontier, and Shorts programs. Tickets are available for purchase here.