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Sundance 2022 Goes Virtual: Festival Cancels In-Person Events Amid Omicron Surge

Sundance is nixing its Park City component in favor of a formula proven last year: a festival that unfolds online and at arthouses around the country.

The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre is shown Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Park City, Utah. The pandemic has transformed the annual Sundance Film Festival into a largely virtual event, canceling in-person screenings in Utah this year. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre in Park City last year

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

The Sundance Film Festival has canceled its in-person programming in Park City and will be an almost entirely virtual affair when it kicks off January 20. Amid an unprecedented nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, the festival on Wednesday announced that it will not take place as a physical event in Park City, Utah. Similar to last year’s edition, the festival will host screenings and programming online and at arthouses around the country.

“While it is a deep loss to not have the in-person experience in Utah, we do not believe it is safe nor feasible to gather thousands of artists, audiences, employees, volunteers, and partners from around the world, for an 11-day festival while overwhelmed communities are already struggling to provide essential services,” the festival said in a release today.

The decision is a quick about-face from two weeks ago, when Sundance announced it would move forward with plans for a hybrid festival amid a flurry of other canceled events. At that point, organizers had hoped new booster requirements and safety measures, as well as a testing requirement, would allow for in-person events in Park City to continue safely. But the coronavirus circumstances only worsened by the new year, sowing major doubt about viability of thousands of people descending on the small mountain town.

As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn reported Tuesday, Park City’s Summit County is Utah’s COVID hotspot. The festival last month suggested to sponsors that nothing less than a government lockdown would stop the in-person festivities — unlikely in a state that has a ban on some vaccine mandates.

“With case numbers forecasted to peak in our host community the week of the festival we cannot knowingly put our staff and community at risk,” organizers wrote. “The undue stress to Summit County’s health services and our more than 1,500 staff and volunteers would be irresponsible in this climate. It has become increasingly clear over the last few days that this is the right decision to make for the care and well-being of all of our community.”

The 2020 festival drew some 117,000 people, including 44,000 from out-of-state locations like New York City and Los Angeles. Over the last two weeks, New York state and LA County have each routinely broken daily records case numbers, thanks in part to breakthrough cases among vaccinated people. While many infected with Omicron report mild symptoms, New York state on Monday reported that 9,000 people were hospitalized with COVID, higher than peak levels in January 2021, while the 103 deaths reported marked the highest number of fatalities since vaccines became widely available.

The virus’ surge across the country has wreaked havoc on critical infrastructure: Many states are reporting their ICU beds are full or near capacity. In Utah, 88 percent of ICU beds are full, passing a mark where it is “functionally out of staffed ICU beds, indicating an overwhelmed hospital system,” according to state health officials. Since Christmas Eve, airlines have canceled some 20,000 flights as winter weather further disrupted the Omicron-strained travel sector.

With two weeks to go before Sundance kicks off, filmmakers, journalists, executives, and other film industry figures will be faced with a scramble to cancel flight and condo reservations and reorient their plans for a virtual experience. As of last month, Netflix, Chase, and Canada Goose were among those planning Main Street lounges, while publications including IndieWire and Variety were working on plans for in-person studios to interview filmmakers and talent.

While Sundance had always conceived its 2022 edition as a hybrid one, many in the industry had planned to go all-in on the in-person experience, viewing the festival as a long-awaited opportunity to return to the buzz that only an Eccles premiere can deliver. The fact that the festival’s online infrastructure is already in place offers high hopes for a pivot to a robust virtual experience.

Sundance’s platform is proven: With Wednesday’s announcement, the festival will stage a redux of its 2021 edition, which was online-only save for the Satellite Screens program. That effort got high marks from the industry and the public: Last year’s edition launched buzzy films like “Summer of Soul” and “Flee,” while Apple set the record for a Sundance acquisition when it bought “CODA” for $25 million. And with lower barriers of geography and cost, Sundance saw its largest-ever audience, up 168 percent from the pre-pandemic 2020 edition. Many films were accompanied with a live Q&A after their online premieres, which the festival said last month it planned to repeat this year.

This time around, all Sundance passes were sold with online access, even to those people that planned to attend in-person. Individual tickets haven’t gone on sale yet — that begins on January 12 for members and January 13 for the public. Organizers on Wednesday asked for patience as they make necessary adjustments for the pivot to online-only and said they will soon offer an update to pass-, package-, and ticket-holders.

The festival will continue to run January 20-30 as planned, with schedule adjustments to account for the new online-only plan.

The Satellite Screens program will continue as planned between January 28-30 at theaters in Massachusetts, North Carolina, San Diego, Memphis, Kansas, Seattle, and Baltimore.

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