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By Jeremy Berger
on 1.31.14
Photo by Eric Yang

T
his year was the 30th anniversary of the Sundance Film Festival, when Park City, UT, becomes the center of the celluloid universe and nearly 50,000 people descend on a mountain town of 7,500 inhabitants. Sundance is widely considered the most important film festival in the U.S., matched on the world scale only by Festival de Cannes. It’s the incubator for films that resonate deeply in American popular culture, like Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Braff’s Garden State; what gets picked up by distributors at Sundance doesn’t always top the box office, but you can count on it capturing the zeitgeist. What’s more, the festival makes for a raucous week in the Wasatch Range. We were on hand this year to see how it all works.

Robert Redford started the Sundance Institute in 1981, inviting ten emerging filmmakers and a handful of writers and directors to the mountains of Utah to create independent films. At that point Redford had acted in several of films now considered classics, including The Sting, a series of works directed by Sydney Pollack (Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor) and, of course, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in a role that was originally meant for Paul Newman. A few years later the festival was officially born when when Redford took over management of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival.

Today Sundance has more moving parts than the Patek Caliber 89: there’s the Documentary Film Program, the Feature Film Program, the Film Music Program, the Creative Producing Initiative, the Native American and Indigenous Program, the Theatre Program, Short Films, a film archive, a collection at UCLA and local programs for Utah residents. Sundance, in short, is much more than a one-week film festival, but this event is the crown jewel of the Institute, the hub from which all the other pieces radiate.

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Indeed, the films are the main draw of Sundance, particularly the world premieres in documentary and dramatic categories. Some of the most talked about openings going into the festival were Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kristen Stewart as a Guantanamo guard in Camp X-Ray, Lenny Abrahamson’s Frank, Gregg Whiteley’s documentary about Mitt Romney, and Zach Braff’s latest, Wish I Was Here. But at Sundance stardom and anticipation doesn’t necessarily translate to awards; none of these did especially well. Whiplash, a film about a 19-year-old drummer bent on success at a Manhattan music conservatory, took home both the U.S. Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic category and the Audience Award in the same — a big win for the director, who funded the film after winning last year’s top prize in the shorts category. A handful of films from this year’s festival, including Whiplash, have been picked up by distribution companies and will see theatrical release in late 2014.

It’s worth noting that seeing films at Sundance is both an experience worth pursuing and a little bit complex. Public screenings take on a spiritual quality, the audience displaying a reverence for film as art that’s lost in most big cinemas showing blockbuster releases. At Sundance, films are screened in a large handful of theaters, mostly in Park City, including at the iconic Egyptian Theatre on Main Street, which has an outward appearance of something out of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo (it’s less spectacular inside), as well as municipal buildings and regular movie theaters that have been converted for the festival. You won’t hear cell phones go off or excessively loud chip crunching at Sundance; it’s a pristine movie-watching experience, culminating in the director coming out to answer questions about his or her film. At Marmato, for example, director Mark Grieco talked about embedding himself in a Colombian mountain town for years while making a documentary about the battle over gold mining rights. It’s a rich experience, greater than the sum of its parts — and it doesn’t get any better for film nerds.

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Tickets, however, are a scarce commodity. For visitors who want to see all the anticipated films and the celebrities who attend them — and don’t mind splashing out up to $3,500 to that end — the best option is to get a festival pass that gives you priority in early online booking. Getting individual tickets during the first few days of the festival is fairly difficult, though it’s possible using the electronic waitlist system, showing up at the Main Box Office early in the morning, or buying them from scalpers, whom we met at the Wasatch Brew Pub and who seemed by their demeanor to be running a successful operation. The other option is just to wait until the second half of the festival, when the crowds thin out a bit and the screenings are more accessible. If you take this approach, you can spend the first few days exploring the other film projects, panels and events happening in Park City: go see a Shorts program at midnight; check out a panel discussion about the tension between tradition and modernity; see a band at the ASCAP Music Cafe. There’s so much happening in town that it’s impossible to be bored between films.

The interesting thing about Sundance is that while most people are catching films during their stay, not everyone is there for the same reasons. Indeed, according to a study by the Bureau of Economy and Business Research at the University of Utah, only 16.2 percent of attendees surveyed identified themselves as “entertainment professionals”, which means that the grand majority of people are in the business of checking out the scene. Besides, the deal-making aspect of Sundance — distributors snapping up the next Little Miss Sunshine, The Usual Suspects or Clerks — happens behind closed doors, probably in some chalet tucked in the mountains. So what are people doing? The same study by the University of Utah suggested that visitors planned to see an average of six screenings and that 40 percent of nonresidents were going to carve some turns in the mountains. Anecdotally, there are plenty of people here to snap photos of anything that resembles a celebrity. And everyone is spending money: festival attendees spent more than $56 million in 2013.

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When planning a visit to Sundance it’s important to know that many of the local Park City attractions are closed; they sell their space to outside entities for pop-up events and parties. There are exceptions to the rule, one of the big ones being skiing and snowboarding. The slopes are virtually empty during Sundance, so you can take a short ride to the Canyons or Deer Valley and have plenty of real estate to shred. Many visitors actually stay in and around the ski resorts because they have an abundance of condos, they’re just outside town and lodging around Main Street fills up fast; if you can find it, though, the quaint downtown is the best place to stay. Our favorite restaurants in town were a Mediterranean restaurant on Main Street called Reef’s and High West Distillery & Saloon, which serves Western-inspired cuisine with local ingredients. At any of the better restaurants in town you’ll want reservations, though there are also plenty of spots to eat and drink that are a little more laid back, like the local Mexican joint El Chubasco, the high-brow coffee joint Atticus on Main Street, and the Wasatch Brew Pub perched high on Main Street.

Of course, it goes without saying that the parties are every bit as essential to the Sundance experience as the films — Park City is, after all, a storied mountain resort town. Among the best events we had the privilege of attending were thrown by sponsors of the festival, including KETEL ONE® Vodka, whose daily Happy Hour at the Ketel One Sundance Channel HQ events were an ideal way to relax with a cocktail after a long day. Situated right on Main Street, the Ketel One Sundance Channel HQ was also home to another event and one of the after-hours highlights of the entire festival, the Celebrity Poker Tournament. The tournament was hosted by Mekhi Phifer and drew a full house of celebrities playing poker to benefit Jaden’s Ladder, a non-profit that assists survivors of domestic violence; some recognizable Hollywood types, including John C. Reilly and Molly Shannon, kicked back and made conversation by the bar, with music by DJ Eric Sharp setting the tone. Aside from poker, the focus of the night was on the expertly crafted cocktails, which included the Ketel One Vodka Harlem Sensation, the Ketel One Vodka Citroen Beertail and the Ketel One Oranje Ward 8 — not to mention dramatic ice sculptures through which bartenders mixed long drinks. These events provided entertainment, but they were also an ideal venue to bump into friends and new acquaintances from the festival, which attracts big names but ultimately has a small-town feel.

Sundance has grown in size and importance over the years, and what we can say after being on the ground during the 30th anniversary is that it’s very much endowed with a sense of independence, creativity and enthusiasm for showcasing the best in film. That such a rare experience takes place in a quintessential mountain town and has maintained its integrity over the years is a testament to Redford’s vision and the commitment of all the partners involved. From the screenings in iconic theaters to the high-energy events, Sundance is truly one of America’s finest festivals of any sort. We’ll be back next year — see you on Main Street.

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