REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: What's good at Sundance?

Robert Redford at Sundance  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Robert Redford at Sundance
(photo credit: Courtesy)
PARK CITY, UTAH – The Sundance Film Festival is a cross between a trade show and a consciousness-raising seminar, punctuated with movies and parties.
Since 1981, the festival has been held in the ski town of Park City, Utah. Nearly 125,000 people attended some part of the 11-day event in 2018, making it the biggest independent film festival in the US.
Guests came from 49 states and 26 countries in 2018, but about two-thirds of the attendees were from Utah.
Sundance is an expensive destination. Per-person spending for out-of-town visitors averaged $3,518, with a median stay of five days.
A Best Western motel room seven miles out of town will run about $300 per night; hotel rooms downtown go for $700 per night and up.
An express movie pass for just the first week runs $4,000. A 10-ticket movie package costs $600.
A bowl of soup at a Thai restaurant goes for $12. Luckily, it’s possible to save on food by grazing the lounges sponsored by Lyft, Chase, Acura, Dell, etc. that line Main Street. I arrived on a Saturday night and managed to avoid paying for a meal until Tuesday, although this meant that one morning I breakfasted on s’mores and hot cider, courtesy of Stella Artois.
The lounges also offer a wide array of branded swag, ranging from ski hats to socks and cigars – and even an DNA testing kit.
Sundance is a casual festival, in contrast to the glamour of Cannes or Venice. Movie stars and locals alike stroll around in parkas and jeans. Main Street features an LL Bean and independent bookstores, rather than Prada and Gucci boutiques.
Sundance runs (incredibly smoothly) with the help of 2,000 volunteers – about half from outside Utah. I met one volunteer from Oakland who manages “tiny house” communities, and another who’s a costumer in Hollywood.
Some locals are annoyed by the traffic and the long lines at their favorite restaurants; others embrace the festival and volunteer. Many earn a significant part of their annual income renting out their condos or party venues.
Getting a movie into the Sundance Festival is fiercely competitive. More than 14,000 films from 152 countries were submitted for consideration for this year’s festival, and only 112 made the cut.
I saw 10 movies in five days, which makes me a slacker. I met one London-based creative executive who saw 20.
Many films that premiere at Sundance end up winning Academy Awards, including Little Miss Sunshine, Whiplash, Manchester by the Sea, Get Out, Call Me by Your Name, and the Israeli short West Bank Story.
Sundance is also a marketplace where independent films are sold to distributors.
This year, for example, Amazon bought the rights to Late Night (a talk-show comedy starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling) for $13 million and The Report (a true-story political drama about US-government-sponsored torture, staring Adam Driver, with Annette Bening as California Sen. Diane Feinstein) for $14m.
Offscreen panels at Sundance tend toward the political and the metaphysical, with topics like “Can Art Save Democracy?” and “Volumetric Filmmaking.”
Sundance prides itself on diversity and inclusion. Fifty-three percent of the directors in this year’s US Dramatic Competition are women, 41% are people of color, and 18% identify as LGBT.
In comparison, out in the real world, women directed only 4% of the 1,200 top-grossing movies from 2007 to 2018.
At a panel called “Making the (In)visible: Radical Transparency in the Data-Driven Age,” Dr. Stacey L. Smith from the USC Annenberg School launched the #4PercentChallenge. Participants agree to work with at least one female director in the next 18 months.
Universal Filmed Entertainment (headed by Donna Langley) was the first major film studio to accept the challenge.
As a dark irony, the documentary Untouchable is premiering at Sundance this year. It’s about the rise and fall of former-powerhouse-movie-mogul Harvey Weinstein, who made his reputation acquiring independent films at Sundance and marketing them into Oscar-winning hits.
At least three women have accused Weinstein of assaulting or harassing them in Park City hotels during past Sundance festivals. Actor Rose McGowan says Weinstein raped her here in 1997.
The #TimesUp and #MeToo movements, which led to initiatives like the #4PercentChallenge, were launched or accelerated by the Weinstein revelations in October 2017.
Movie stars
But what about the movie stars? What about the parties? What about the movies?
Movie stars and Hollywood/YouTube royalty are certainly in attendance at Sundance. I saw Jon Hamm, Annette Bening, Maura Tierney, Lupita Nyong’o, Josh Gad, Jake Gyllenhall, Richard Schiff, Norman Lear, and Rene Russo, among others.
The best place to spot stars is at their movie premieres or on panels. They’re less likely to be seen wandering around town. The only star I spotted “in the wild” was Jeff Goldblum, exiting the Hollywood Reporter Lounge and promptly mobbed by fans and paparazzi.
Parties are a mixed bag, and many are open only to invited guests way above my level of fabulousness. The ones I attended ranged from a modest gathering at an Indian restaurant, to an under-catered event on a drafty soundstage, to a heavily sponsored affair hosted by Kyra Sedgwick at the ritzy St. Regis Hotel and reached via funicular.
The standard conversation-starter at Sundance is “Have you seen anything good?” Luckily, most of the movies I saw were good, and many will soon be available online on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and other platforms. Others, with next year’s award season in mind, won’t show up in theaters until the fall.
Here’s a list of my Sundance favorites:
Documentaries: Gaza, Advocate, Hail Satan?
Comedies: Brittany Runs a Marathon, Little Monsters
Dramas: The Report, Native Son