The Sundance Film Festival. It’s not what you’re thinking. It’s not small-town royalty. It’ not the luxurious exclusivity of Telluride (or what I hear of it, at least). There are beautiful houses, friendly people careening down snowy mountainsides, and restaurants with $10 beers. Otherwise, it’s just a small town. Primarily, it’s just a small town. Intimate is a good word for it. You see a lot of the same people. Different theaters become sociable characters in your brief, but seemingly eternal life there. A week or ten days, it doesn’t matter. You belong for a minute.
You develop routine—where you eat, what you prioritize (parties, films, writing, socializing, exploring,), how you exist. The frosty air is a constant, and thus, a non-factor. It reminded me a lot of summer camp. Film summer camp for adults. There is a palpable sense of community, which is typically an indicator of growth. Growth through conversation with people who aren’t like you and unknown films that fill you.
Before I continue, you should know that 2019 marked the year in which I both attended and covered my first Sundance. Someone who has attended Sundance for years has much more to offer as far as a holistic look at the festival goes. Go to them for questions and advice. I’m not writing about that. This isn’t a Sundance guide. It would be downright ignorant for me to believe that my lack of experience in any way competes with others’ wealth of experience. But there’s a certain potential for transparency in the account of a first-timer that couldn’t be achieved through the lens of a Sundance veteran. I have no history to draw on—no good years and bad years, conscious predispositions, festival wisdom, etc. I can speak to the experience of those of you have never been because three weeks ago, I hadn’t either.
I started off wide-eyed like anyone in my position probably would, and almost immediately fell into the groove. Through my eyes, the festival went through a lightning-quick transition from extra-terrestrial to mundane in the sense that three days in, I’d already seen twelve films and written about two of them. But that transition would’ve been infinitely less smooth if not for the host of experienced critics I stayed with, some of whom were in their 20th year of coverage.
A day in the life of a critic covering the festival for the first time looks something like this. You wake up after a late night doing anything movie-related—watching midnight thriller/horrors at “The Library” (a literal library jam-packed with genre junkies that is by far the least theatrical of all venues), drinking local beer and talking about actors’ careers, sipping whiskey and riffing your way through movie geek games, rush-writing a review of a film you can’t get off your mind, going to a premiere after party, etc.
You wake up with little sleep under your belt and probably a cold. You’re always up early to cash in on the futile concept that you might possibly “get ahead.” But it’s a necessary futility because if you don’t chase it, you’ll always be that much more behind. So you groggily get out of bed with five hours of rest to finish writing, to see an 8:30am movie, or to make sure you get some food in your system before you’re stuck in a three-in-a-row rut that doesn’t allow time for food until dinner.
Then, to put it most simply, you watch a shit ton of movies. I watched a minimum of three a day and did four on most days. You make a schedule before you go, but it’s always changing. You’re constantly solving the puzzle that is your own filmgoing schedule. Each person has a batch of movies they consider must-sees, the kind they wouldn’t miss even if Riley Keough asked them out to lunch on her dime (to be clear, that sort of thing doesn’t happen, but you get the gist). And everyone has an equally small pool of films that are of absolutely zero interest to them. But the overwhelming majority fall into a middling realm of intrigue. Maybe you’re drawn to the personnel or the style or just the still, but other aspects seem questionable. Or maybe you just don’t have enough information to know at all. So you start knocking out which ones are most interesting to you and in the meantime the buzz begins to grow.
The Sundance “buzz” you hear about is real, but underwhelmingly named. It needs a new moniker. It’s an incessant earthquake, a way of being, the pounding heart of the social structure that makes up the event. It invades every crack of the entire town, thick enough to warrant a viscosity measurement. You can’t take a shit without hearing what people thought about Netflix’s newest purchase or some dissenting opinion on the hottest film or the name of a breakout writer-director.
Writing reviews in anything but total isolation can drive you crazy at times. You’re 50 words into the plot summary only to realize you’ve blended eight movies: “Adam Driver plays his own father—a ‘house tuner’ robot who raised him as the only child on Earth after a mass extinction—in this rape-revenge tale that takes place in the high art scene of Los Angeles that’s about falling in love with a heroin addict and saying goodbye to your Chinese grandmother.”
But you’re at Sundance, so it’s hard to stay frustrated for too long. If you’re like me, you’re there because you’re magnetized to the world of film and everything it has to offer. So, you keep watching movies. And the buzz ends up being formative information for your ever-evolving schedule. Surprise greats develop a reputation and suddenly top your must-see list. Some with high expectations are universally maligned or just shrugged off and you decide you’ll wait for those to stream.
Others escape your grasp, and you become determined to work them into your schedule, eventually coming to terms with the fact that plenty won’t make it. Inevitably, you’ll see films that no one around you sees, everyone around you sees, you wish you didn’t see, and you wish you could see a second time. There will be films that you don’t get that everyone else loves and vice versa. By the end, you’ll have forgotten about certain films that premiered in the first couple days, as if they’re from a past festival. But as long as you stay warm, it’ll all be okay.
If you’re lucky like I gather I was, the sun shines strongly in the mornings and afternoons, and the icy cold is suddenly a frosty warmth. In sunlight, everything feels fresh. You have short conversations about what you’ve seen and what you’re seeing as you pass familiar faces in and around the theatres and more crowded parts of the city. I found a coffee shop up against some ski lifts closer to the center of town (Main Street, they call it) and made a habit of good coffee and efficient writing most mornings, followed by films interspersed with more writing and socializing.
You do a decent amount of waiting, but it’s not too bad. All the waiting takes place in big white “warming tents” crawling with volunteers, who are mostly friendly. Of course, there’s the occasional volunteer power trip, but what do you expect out of a group of over 2,000? I typically showed up 30 minutes before a film, but if I were especially concerned with what seat I got, I’d make it an hour. If I was especially careless, 15 minutes did the trick.
I saw more celebrities per capita than could possibly exist anywhere else, given how small the town is. It’s bizarre how casual something like sitting across the aisle from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or in the seat directly behind Hilary Swank becomes. In context, it’s not noteworthy beyond a single mention. We wouldn’t have room to talk about anything else if we got stuck on celebrity sightings. On one day, in particular, I walked past or sat in the vicinity of Tessa Thompson no less than five times at HQ, the cozy lodge-like Park City Marriott that is briefly converted into the most A-list and press-trafficked hotel commons on the planet.
When I was writing this piece on cyclical violence in Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, I was feverishly curious about Kent’s intentions. I sat on the second level of the HQ lobby, which overlooks the lobby’s main entrance, hacking my interpretations onto the page and wondering if Kent would approve only to look up in the middle and see Kent walk right inside. I was tempted to go down and barrage her with questions, but in better judgment, decided against it. While I was writing the first part of my review of The Farewell in the same place, different day, I nearly ran into Lulu Wang on my way to the bathroom. It was surreal. Even when the press started fleeing a week in and parts of the city developed creepy ghost town vibes, it was surreal. Theaters were still packed, and I was still passing Tessa Thompson in the halls.
It’s hard to know what the actual significance of a “first Sundance” is without knowing how I’ll feel in 3, 5, 10, or 20 years about the coveted festival. But I know Park City during Sundance is a wonderful little fairytale world of film that I want to return to. I was fortunate enough to stay in a terrific mid-century modern lodge-condo with deep red carpeting and 90-degree angles to-boot, an aesthetic I absolutely loved. But even if you end up in a motel outside of town, you should go. You won’t find another place with all of its particular quirks and nuances, where the popular world of film interest and indie filmmaking collide. I binged vitamin C gummies, drank more water than I ever have in ten days, lost four pounds in meals missed, watched 30 films, wrote over 12,000 words, and had an absolute blast. I highly recommend it.