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Two Festivals in One

It’s hard to imagine that this late January film “feast” was once a September event called the Utah/U.S. Film Festival. Ever since director Sidney Pollack suggested in 1981 to Robert Redford that the Hollywood crowd would more likely come to his fledgling festival if it was during mid-ski season, Sundance has become the U.S. film industry’s annual winter mecca.

This 10-day festival is really two festivals. The first weekend is glamorous, full of industry parties, sponsor-led celebrity events, and world premieres. Alcohol flows widely (be careful given the altitude) and you may be invited to a late night hot tub party. Unless you’re a big-wig, we don’t necessarily recommend you attend the first weekend as it’s easy to feel like you’re on the other side of the velvet rope. Things relax a bit during the weekdays and then the second weekend is when you can try to catch whatever film has gotten lots of buzz. And, on the final Sunday, you can try to get last minute tickets to the award-winners of the festival that are announced on Saturday night. Sundance specializes in documentaries and typically has more than 100 films being screened so there’s a wide array of choices that means it’s a great festival for a family or group of friends who have varied tastes. Go solo to see the films you really want to see and then connect with your tribe later to compare notes and make recommendations.

A Variety of Venues

Virgin Sundance attendees are sometimes surprised by the lack of glamour of where the films are shown. You might be in a gymnasium, a high school auditorium, or a tiny sliver of a theater that had better days half a century ago. When you have to fit 50,000 attendees into a small town for a film festival, you have to be resourceful but that adds to the charm of Sundance. Yes, it’s got a certain sex appeal given its Hollywood credibility, but you might be sitting next to an as-of-yet unknown actor in a gym as you watch an indie film that’s generating a serious buzz. The populist nature of the festival is part of its appeal, especially during the second week.

Part of the soul of Sundance is its history of supporting and creating a competition for independent American filmmakers and, ironically given how industry-focused its become, a place to highlight rebel filmmakers who’ve worked outside the Hollywood system. At the time of its 1978 founding, the only major U.S. film festival featuring American-made films was the USA Film Festival in Dallas. Sundance has become so successful that there’s now a festival in London, a TV channel with its name, and a chain of arty movie theaters dotted in some of the more cosmopolitan spots on the planet. If you feel Sundance has sold out and become too connected to the Hollywood studio system, there are many alternative festivals going on in the Park City area around the same time, from Slamdance to Slumdance and Lapdance to Nodance. Figure out how to fill your dance card accordingly. Sundance has also responded to the rumor that it has "sold out" by creating a “NEXT” programming category with more innovative, cutting-edge filmmakers. It’s often easier to get tickets for those films than the blockbusters that premiere at the festival.

More than Movies

Park City is a quaint little town with great restaurants, shops, and lots of live music venues. While there’s a general hyper quality to Sundance attendees as they rush from venue to venue packing as many as four films into a day, it’s worth spending a little extra time in Park City to enjoy the vibe. In fact, some of the most fun you’ll have is meeting some strangers who just left the same film with you and grabbing a drink with them and debating about what you just saw on the big screen. Consider going to a few film panels as well if you’re interested in eavesdropping on interesting conversations of actors or directors. Additionally, if you love skiing or snowboarding, you have three great resorts within close proximity (Park City Mountain Resort, Deer Valley, and Canyons Resort), although Deer Valley is old school and doesn’t allow snowboarders. In sum, the Sundance Film Festival is deservedly one of the most celebrated film festivals in the world and its location makes it perfect for a long weekend visit in the winter.

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