The 2021 Sundance Film Festival, a mostly virtual affair that wrapped last week, boasted the largest-ever audience in the festival’s four-decade history, organizers announced today. The record is based on an estimate of over 600,000 total audience views, a 2.7 fold increase over numbers from the 2020 in-person festival.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival was an abbreviated event that unfolded largely online. The seven-day program included 73 features, 50 shorts, four Indie Series, 23 talks and events, a New Frontier section with 14 projects, as well as screenings on 40 satellite screens run by 20 cinemas and organizations around the country. Participants watched from over 120 countries and in all 50 states, plus Washington D.C., Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin islands. In a normal year, Sundance showcases around 120 features, all screening in and near Park City, Utah over 11 days.
Per Sundance organizers, there were a total of 251,331 views of features, shorts, and Indie Series through the online platform and apps in 2021. Sundance estimates that an average of two people were watching from each account, to account for family members and friends, which boosts its estimate for viewership to 500,000 people viewing the film program. There were 33,267 views of free talks and events, with total viewers estimated at 66,000 based on the two-per-household estimate. Sundance came up with the multiplier using industry standards plus results from early surveys from general-audience members about how many people in their households were watching.
New Frontier, the festival’s section for VR and new media projects, had a particularly dramatic upswing in participation. The program typically attracts 2,000 visits in person. This year, Sundance recorded 39,869 visits. The boost was likely due to the at-home nature of this year’s festival and the fact that Sundance bolstered the program by building social spaces like Film Party into the festival experience.
Early attendance data shows 20,000 people watched screenings at some 40 drive-in or cinema screen locations.
While some of Sundance’s numbers rely on estimates, it’s safe to say that this was indeed a banner year for the festival. The audience compared to last year marked an increase even without accounting for household viewers. There was also a five percent increase in press and industry accreditation compared to last year, with 1,800 industry members and 1,272 press accredited. The Press Inclusion Initiative grew from 51 members in 2020 to 80 members in 2021.
Additional numbers released by Sundance suggested that a broad range of people enjoyed the offerings: 85 percent of total products sold were $15 single-film tickets, the rest were passes. And people enjoyed the live experience that Sundance and industry partners like agencies were pushing: 64 percent of viewers opted to watch films during their three-hour premiere window, which included live chat and Q&As.
“It’s been rewarding to see the way adventurous audiences everywhere engaged with our program and platform, and of course we are delighted to have met and even exceeded our goal of expanding the reach and community for independent film in this challenging year,” said Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam. “I am so inspired by the incredible Sundance team who rose to the challenge of presenting the Festival in a new way, and grateful to our Board whose partnership and support was invaluable and – as always – to Robert Redford for being our guiding light.”
The festival met its goal of providing discounts to at least 20 percent of anticipated festival goers. Discounts were provided to artist-support nonprofits serving or led by people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and/or people with disabilities. It adapted its long-running Ignite Ticket Package to the current model by disbursing 1,000 discounted passes to people ages 18-25.
“We talked about this year’s festival as a grand experiment ” said Festival Director Tabitha Jackson, “and now we are in the process of analyzing the results – a vital part of informing the expression of Festival in 2022. There is a lot still to learn but we are delighted that a combination of online and in-person participation, innovative social spaces, hard work, and a lot of crossed-fingers came together to expand and connect audiences for the incredible slate of work we were lucky enough to program this year.’