No Business like Snow Business at Sundance!
A young film hack looks back at his first-ever experience at Sundance and says the biting cold of Park City only makes it an ideal venue for the film festival, because you don’t want to do anything but sit inside a theatre and watch movies all day
Layers. Layers. Layers. Enough well-informed well-wishers had stressed upon the need to dress in layers in order to stay warm in the sub-zero temperature I was about to experience. I was at my first-ever Sundance film festival in the wintry town of Park City, Utah, sufficiently packed with thermals, fleece, sweaters, down jackets, neck gaiters, gloves, woollen socks and more. One had never heard of many of these outfits until now and would perhaps never use them again.
Battling jet lag after near-inedible in-flight meals and a patchy GPS, you arrive at a town tucked between world-class ski resorts that you can neither afford nor have the time for. “You are here for the movies, not skiing,” you tell yourself.
The piercing mountain breeze hits you, and you feel like Jack Nicholson in that final, frightful shot of The Shining — one of thousands of frozen faces trying to deal, as you deal, with a high altitude and a higher density of stars.
Truly nothing can prepare you for the alpine fever dream that Sundance Film Festival is.
Contrary to what you may think, the frigid cold actually makes Park City an ideal and idyllic spot to host the festival. In the biting cold, you don’t want to do anything but sit inside a theatre and watch movies all day.
The timing of Sundance could not be more fitting; Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson says: “This festival drops right in the middle of the Oscar season, which means I’m so tired of talking about all of those movies. Here you have a bunch of fresh movies that whet your appetite for independent cinema. That’s a contrast to other festivals where it’s more hierarchical or more French,” she laughs.
Two days into the festival and you’ve stopped complaining about the weather, as you start realising the privilege you’re being given — to discover some great films before the rest of the world does.
This is where Jordan Peele, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh made their mark before becoming big names. You spot budding actors hoping for a star-making turn, as Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams or Michael B Jordan found theirs.
With 119 feature films plus short films, episodic short-form stories and the New Frontier programmes, it is easy to get overwhelmed and, thus, overplan while at the festival.
Rotten Tomatoes Editor Jacqueline Coley says you shouldn’t. “Take the mythos out of it... Get a plan, make a plan and then be okay with just ripping up the plan,” she says.
Wilkinson concurs: “Sundance is like the discovery festival. I come with no preconceived notions about what I am about to see. A festival like Toronto is the opposite. You go there with a list of films you have to watch because those will be a part of the awards conversation. Here it is like — who knows? Last year, for instance, there was this little film — Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade — that I wasn’t going to go watch because a YouTube guy made it. Then a friend recommended it, and it turned out to be one of the best of the year.”
When you’re at Sundance, be prepared to suffer serious bouts of FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out does push you a bit further — every time I missed the premiere of a film that I really wanted to see, I’d simply catch it at the press and industry (P&I) screening the next morning.
During the festival, the snowy town’s public library, high-school auditorium and local commercial movie theatres are all converted into screening halls. Hotels, restaurants, bars and stores get revamped into venues for media events, panels and invite-only parties. The whole town pitches in as volunteers — about 2,000 of them — in pink-and-white Kenneth Cole Sundance jackets. They’re at every bus stop and outside every theatre, ready to guide an Indian reporter to the nearest vegetarian restaurant or kindly remind him that jaywalking is not his birth right.
“People here are very welcoming. The crowd isn’t cliquey, in comparison to other festivals. You never know if a particular movie is going to win an Oscar or simply disappear. So, everyone’s here because they love this thing — this weird, independent storytelling,” says Wilkinson.
In the few minutes you get between screenings, Q&As or off-screen panel discussions, you network with fellow journalists, critics and the audience to monitor the buzz all around, and the trends emerging.
The various parallel conversations that take place in the packed Park City shuttles are a goldmine of data, too, so it is important to hit top form in the eavesdropping game.
As you take a Lyft back to your overpriced hotel room after a long tiring day, the driver almost always offers you a bottle of water, reminding you it is important to stay hydrated to fend off altitude sickness. Once you reach your room, you sit down to file stories for the day. That leaves about three hours to catch up on sleep. Still, you can’t help but stay wide awake, wondering what to watch the next morning.
“It’s like the biggest scam ever, that we get to do this for a job!” Coley sums it up.
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