Sundance 2021 Proved That a Virtual Film Festival Can Be Real

The Sundance Film Festival always has a few surprises in store. This year, they didn’t come from record-breaking deals or overnight talent discoveries. All of that happened, but the surprise of Sundance 2021 was that it worked so well.

Over the past year, the concept of the virtual film festival has been eyed with skepticism at best, and at worst, outright revulsion. Cannes shrugged off the notion of a virtual festival each time it postponed its 2020 dates until all it could do was announce a selection with no screenings. The Toronto and New York festivals found basic solutions to make their lineups available in virtual form. For its part, TIFF actually pulled off a localized version of its event that included indoor screenings. Venice went a step further as the only snazzy red-carpet fall event to take place exclusively in physical form.

Sundance took a different path. By late June 2020, it announced plans to design an online hub and reduce its dates. That provided plenty of time to observe the pluses and minuses of other virtual festival experiments.

The virtual festival also represented an opportunity. Sundance has long endured its own existential crisis: Attendance is cost prohibitive, which opposes pressure to expand its audience base, while the mayhem of parties and Main Street activations threaten to overwhelm the impact of the movies themselves.

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This year, Sundance was forced to go back to its roots with a lineup built around discovery titles, It also benefited from technological developments including consumer-friendly VOD strategy and social opportunities in the virtual realm.

It wasn’t perfect, but few found reasons to complain. Three-hour windows for films meant viewers could peruse the program without fear of scheduling overlaps or delayed shuttle buses. The streaming platform, designed by an in-house team that used virtual festival powerhouse Shift72 as its player (the company that also designed virtual solutions in 2020 for SXSW, NYFF, and TIFF), never crashed in the middle of a premiere. No reports of piracy. Industry professionals and passionate amateurs could dig through the lineup; critics could review it.

It might have been a pointless exercise if the program didn’t deliver., but it was on par with any other solid Sundance. Per usual, U.S. Dramatic Competition brought intriguing new voices to the fore, from Christopher Makoto Yogi’s dreamlike study of mortality, “I Was a Simple Man,” to Jerrod Carmichael’s buzzy dark buddy comedy, “On the Count of Three,” and Rebecca Hall’s elegant, classic study of racism, “Passing.”

The documentary craze continued with Questlove’s delectable Harlem Cultural Festival tribute “Summer of Soul,” the existentially haunting “A Glitch in the Matrix,” and the astonishing animated refugee saga “Flee.” Sundance’s reputation for launching cheery coming-of-age crowdpleasers remained stronger than ever, thanks to opening-night sensation “CODA.” Buyers salivated; audiences flocked to Twitter to cheer. Despite rampant skepticism, it felt like Sundance after all.

“It’s all about your curation,” one programmer told me a few days into the festival. While not every Sundance movie received widespread acclaim, there were few uniform duds, and even the movies that might not register with every audience found the right ones thanks to the narrowcasting of the VOD experience. (The ludicrous Nicolas Cage western “Prisoners of Ghostland” certainly wasn’t designed to please every contingency, but fans of Japanese genre auteur Sion Sono’s bloody pastiches weren’t disappointed.)

The festival benefited from downsizing its lineup and dropping some studio titles that use the festival for marketing hype but waste everyone’s time. (“Downhill,” anyone? “Jupiter Ascending”?) It turns out that Sundance under duress helped pare down the selection to its strengths.

“CODA”

Sundance

Programming decisions were evident in the scheduling, with Day 1 selections like “CODA” and “Summer of Soul” delivering a lot of noise right out of the gate. Screenings on the virtual platform flowed into Zoom-based live Q&As, where moderators could weed out the well-meaning muck. (Goodbye, “This is more of a comment than a question…”)

Meanwhile, Sundance’s edgy New Frontier section gained new prominence since its virtual platform was the only way to socialize in a festival environment. On any given day, this writer could drop into the virtual Film Party space — accessible by both browser and headset — to find a busy hub filled with avatars worth the conversation, from established names like Edgar Wright to the directors of a documentary short beaming in from the U.K.

One night, I caught up on Jane Schoenbrun’s eerie study of internet-based alienation, “We’re All Going to the World’s Fair,” before shifting to a Zoom hangout organized by film consultant Brian Newman and attended by over two dozen industry folks. From there, I popped into the New Frontier space in time to catch the latest live performance by filmmaker Sam Green, “7 Sounds,” a wondrous 20-minute audio work you can experience through your phone. From there, it was back to Film Party for a surprise birthday gathering for Sundance programmer Rosie Wong, and then another movie. #Sundance felt like Sundance.

Unwittingly, we’ve all spent years practicing for this. Online movie chatter long ago eclipsed literal word of mouth. Post-screening, Twitter is a movie theater lobby. It was still psychologically overwhelming to take in the big picture, but easier to endure it  — a genuine embodiment of what media scholar Douglas Rushkoff calls “present shock,” the powerful sense of always living in the present, for better or worse.

At the same time, Sundance still maintained an air of exclusivity. A select few passholders could explore every facet of the lineup without concern about sellouts. Filmmakers could choose between in the vicinity of 2,000 and 5,000 cap on views, which included passholders and individual ticket buyers. That means that even as the lineup was sampled by a wide range of audiences, it wasn’t infinite and the festival didn’t cannibalize future viewers.

Sam Green records “Seven Sounds”

Sundance

Sundance 2021 may well have been a watershed moment where it found common ground with the juggernaut force of VOD. When complex, messy, physical festivals can return, expect the wider reach of the virtual experience to stick along for the ride.

The concept driving festival culture is a need to connect with likeminded individuals, exchanging ideas about art and culture as well as commerce; this year, Sundance proved it is platform agnostic. Reporters often look to festival lineups to find stories that might work as metaphors or trends; this year, the most appropriate opportunity came from New Frontier. Green’s “7 Sounds” performance drifts through a wide range of auditory experiences: an orgasm library, rhythmic breathing, even rain. Through it all, Green offers eloquent observations on the need to listen to the world to forge a deeper connection, particularly in times of profound isolation.

The piece closes with the idea that humans can only defeat the loneliness of individuality through ephemeral connections. “We’re all islands,” he says. “But maybe a better way to describe it is that we’re all boats on the water. We’ve tied up a flotilla to spend the evening together, but now it’s time to go our separate ways.”