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The Sundance Film Festival 2021 Online Experience

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I’ve always dreamed of going to the Sundance Film Festival.  This year, I got my chance.  With the pandemic making live movie screenings impossible, the programmers turned Sundance from a ten day in-person festival to a six day online festival.  How did it work and was the experience worth it?

Read on to find out.

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Ticketing for the Sundance Film Festival

There were several options as far as tickets.

I could buy single tickets to select showings.

I could buy a day pass for a specific day.

I could buy an ‘awards winner’ pass for the final day, when only the award-winning films would be playing.

Then there’s the option I went with:  a full access pass to the entire festival.

Scheduling for the Sundance Film Festival

There was an online schedule, where I selected films to add to my personal schedule.  Then I went to my personal schedule and clicked a box next to each film to reserve my virtual seat for my final choices.

I could only choose one film for each time slot (10 am, 12 pm, 3 pm, 6 pm, 9 pm, and midnight ET).  Each movie had a set day and time for its premiere.  A waiting room opened up fifteen minutes prior to each showing.

Audience members could chat with each other and network.  (There were a lot of ‘Letterboxd’ usernames exchanged…  The apparent social media choice for film lovers and reviewers.)  Once the movie started, the chat function went away.

I then had four hours to finish watching the movie.  I could rewind, fast forward, and pause the film.  If I caught a film at the start of its four hour window and watched it with barely any pauses, I could join the live Q&A afterwards with the filmmakers.  Here, the chat function returned on the left side of the screen below the video feed.  On the right side of the screen, there was a box where audience members could submit questions and upvote the questions they liked best.  The interviewer would ask their own questions and a selection of the most popular questions from the audience.  (My question got chosen several times.)

If I missed a movie’s premiere, I would have a chance at a second screening two days later.  At 10 am ET, the movies would become available on demand for 24 hours.  However, they were on a first come, first served basis.  Each movie only had a limited number of “seats.”  Once it was  maxed out for the day, it was sold out and you could not access it.  So it was important to try to catch the premieres of the movies I really wanted to see.

This made for some hard choices, especially on Thursday night when several new movies premiered and I wanted to see them all.  Two movies I really wanted to see became available on the same morning.  I was able to catch Edgar Wright’s documentary The Spark Brothers, but I missed seeing Rebecca Hall’s drama Passing, which was sold out by the time my first movie finished.

(Not to worry, though.  Netflix has picked up Passing and will stream it later this year.)

Extra programming for the Sundance Film Festival

In addition to the movies playing Sundance, there were about 14 hours of short films, divided into seven two-hour programs.  As with the movies, you had four hours to watch one of the programs.

What I didn’t realize was you could only watch everything at Sundance once.  I started the animated shorts program while at work on Thursday and watched about an hour of it, thinking I’d be able to go back and finish later.  I did the same thing that night, watching about 45 minutes of another shorts program, between the welcome ceremony and my first movie.  I subsequently lost access to both and didn’t realize it until later.

Sundance also hosted several talks during the course of the festival.  These included the Barbed Wire Kisses Redux  (a discussion with filmmakers who were part of the New Queer Cinema movement) and interviews with the filmmakers of Land and Judas and the Black Messiah among others.

These talks will are available on Sundance’s YouTube channel.

Benefits of attending Sundance online

Even though I didn’t get to have the authentic Park City, Utah experience of the Sundance Film Festival, I’m grateful that I got to experience it the way I did.

The main reason, as many past attendees pointed out in chat, is that I got to see way more movies than I would have if I attended the festival in person for six days.  Because I was at home streaming the films, I didn’t have to worry about things like parking, standing in line in the cold, grabbing a meal between films, getting to and from my hotel, getting from one showing to the next on time, etc.  I didn’t have to budget any time between films.  (I did budget some time with my girlfriend between movies to keep her from murdering me in my sleep.)

Sometimes, I was able to fit in an extra movie by watching a second showing between the end of one movie and the start time for the next one.  I was basically choosing to start my next movie an hour or so later and to skip the Q&A for both films (or catch them on demand).

I know when I eventually attend Sundance in person, I will miss the ease of the online festival.  There is a rumor they may keep the online component in some form in the future.  I hope this is true.

Drawbacks of Sundance hosting an online festival

If I attended Sundance in person, I wouldn’t have to worry about going into work because it would obviously be a physical impossibility to be both places at once.  However, with an online festival, I couldn’t beg for four days off of work.  I managed to get two.  And while I managed to watch The Sparks Brothers and the wild Nicholas Cage film Prisoners of the Ghostland while at work, I would have been able to see much more if I hadn’t been at work.

As grateful as I am to have watched the Q&As and even had my personal questions answered, it would be even cooler to say I’d been in the same room with LaKeith Stanfield, Rhea Perlman, Questlove, and others.

Even though Sundance made it easy for audience members to interact via the chat feature in the waiting room, and a virtual lounge where people could create avatars and chat, I did not find networking to be easy.  I haven’t created a Letterboxd account yet, so I didn’t get to share my username as others flooded the chat with theirs.  And I was way too busy watching movies to ever step foot in the virtual lounge.

I was like a kid in the candy store.  All I wanted was more movies.  I feel like standing in line waiting for films and sitting with other moviegoers waiting for the films to start, I might have had a better chance of joining in on conversations and handing out my business cards.

There were a few satellite screenings in theaters in select cities. But the closest one to me was 90 minutes away.  I didn’t see a point in traveling there when that time could be used to screen more movies at home.

Final Thoughts on the Sundance Film Festival

I’m glad I was able to attend the online Sundance Film Festival.  Even though my pass was a little expensive, it would have cost me way more to see all the movies I did, if I got individual tickets to each of them at $15 a piece.

Getting to see so many movies in one week was amazing.  I discovered a lot of new movies to love that I hope you’ll get to see in the coming year.  Look for my upcoming post recapping everything I saw at the festival and reviews of my favorite Sundance films.

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  • Jill Florio Administrator

    Wow, GM, this sounds outstanding. It’s like me with last year’s online Comic Con. I’m glad you got go and hope you can go in person next year. Looking forward to reading your fave film reviews.

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