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Rethinking Sundance: Advice from a loving admirer
by Eric D. Snider

I'm just gonna say it: Sundance wasn't as much fun this year as it used to be. I'm not the only one to make that observation, either. Several of us in the press corps had conversations about it, starting around Day 4. The quality of the movies was typical some great, some bad, a lot in the middle so that's not it. It's something in the atmosphere, in the overall vibe of Park City. I can't really put my finger on it.

I can name a few things, though. Changing the public-screening-ticket rules makes us less able to attend public screenings, which is where the directors and stars are often on-hand for Q&A, and where you can share the energy of the audience. Press screenings are more convenient, certainly, but not as much "fun" as public ones.

The press office also used to have screener copies (on VHS or DVD) of some films, which we could borrow for 24 hours at a time and watch at home or in our hotel rooms. As of this year, the screeners can't leave the building: You have to sit in a little cubicle with headphones on and watch the movie that way. What fun is that?

Then there's the fact that some of the parking lots that used to be free for festival-goers now cost $10 or $15 for the day. It used to be one of my favorite Sundance secrets that you could park at the Yarrow Hotel and no one cared; this year, they've started caring, and by "caring" I mean "cordoning off the entrances and charging $15 to park."

As more and more people come to the festival, the crowding becomes a more urgent problem. Even if you use the shuttle buses instead of driving, you're still caught in the insane gridlock that takes over Main Street every day during the festival, especially in the 4-7 p.m. hours. The streets are narrow, steep, and clotted. It's a madhouse.

It all makes the festival feel a little too much like, well, work. And of course it is a job for most of us, and there is work that we're required to do, and no one's complaining about that. But in years past, it's been a lot of fun, too. It was invigorating, exciting work, where you're exhausted by the end but it's a good kind of exhausted. This year, I'm just plain tired.

The changes in the festival are attributable to growing pains. The festival gets bigger each year in every way: more press, more industry, more audience members, more movies, more screenings, more venues. Yet Park City remains the same size. The venues that Sundance uses only have so many seats, and there are only so many hours in the day to show movies. The more press and industry people who attend, the greater the likelihood that someone will make copies of the screeners (surely the reason for not letting them out of the building anymore). Festival officials have to do what they can to keep things under control. We all know that the bigger something gets, the less room there is for horsin' around and havin' fun.

(I should also point out that the parking lot situation is the doing of Park City and the various owners of the lots, not the Sundance Institute.)

So what will happen? Eventually, if it keeps being too big and not enjoyable enough, fewer press and industry will attend. As it is, there are very few of us who "have" to go. We go because we enjoy it, and because we're able to convince our employers to pay our expenses or to buy stories from us. If the hassle starts to outweigh the enjoyability, maybe some of us will stop bothering with it.

The same goes for the public the regular movie-lovers who visit Utah to enjoy the festival, and the locals who like to take in a screening or two when Sundance comes to town. Individual ticket prices went up from $10 to $15 this year, a move Sundance defends as economically necessary but that caused grumbling among patrons and may have kept some people away. Those no-longer-free parking lots are bound to be a factor, too, especially for locals.

Of course, if fewer people go to Sundance, that will reduce the crowds, which will help make it more enjoyable for the people who do go. But is that really what Sundance wants? I doubt it. The idea behind the festival is that it's movie-making by the people and for the people. Allowing the fest to become such an ordeal that people abandon it doesn't exactly jibe with the fest's populist ideals.

All of which demands the question: What should be done? The way I see it, there are three possible courses of action:

1. Extend the duration of the festival. It runs for 11 days currently; expanding to 15 days would let them decrease the number of screenings per day, thus easing the crowds and traffic somewhat. You'd still have press and industry in town for the duration, but at least the crowds of locals would be thinned out.

2. Reduce the number of films and screenings. Nobody wants this. Festivals are supposed to grow, not shrink.

3. Move the festival to someplace that can accommodate the huge crowds. Someplace like, say, Salt Lake City.

I'm voting for No. 3. Salt Lake is just 30 miles from Park City, it's infinitely more accessible, and it's already where Sundance's headquarters are. (The office personnel must pack up their stuff and move to temporary digs at the Park City Marriott every year.) There are numerous ski resorts within an hour of downtown, so the Sundance-goers who have gotten used to hitting the slopes during the fest could still do so.

Salt Lake already has five movie screens in actual theaters, not hotel conference rooms! that Sundance uses during the festival, and there are plenty more that could be rented or borrowed. There's ample parking, the temperatures are usually 10 degrees warmer, there's not as much ice and snow on the roads, there are more places to eat and sleep the list of advantages Salt Lake has over Park City goes on and on.

The only thing Park City has going for it is that it's quaint and picturesque. That was fine when the festival started, and the pristine mountain town of Park City was a good fit for the Robert Redford's rootsy, idealistic film festival. But the festival has outgrown Park City. A town of 8,000 people simply cannot manage 40,000 visitors for 11 days every year. Moving to Salt Lake might take some of the natural beauty out of the festival, but I guarantee it would make the fest more enjoyable for everyone who attends.

It would also allow for more growth. Salt Lake can easily handle Sundance at its current size, and it could accommodate more films, more screenings, and more venues, too, as the festival continues to expand. Park City is absolutely at the breaking point. The Sundance Film Festival cannot grow any larger and stay in Park City.

Please understand that I make these criticisms and recommendations out of love. I've covered the festival full-time every year since 2000, and I have many, many happy memories of the movies, the people, and the overall experience. I'm one of those people who don't "have" to go, but I do what I can to convince employers to send me. There were a couple years when I went entirely on my own dime because I just couldn't bear to miss it. It's a wonderful festival, and I want it to continue to be wonderful.

Some of the best films I've seen in my life are films I first saw at Sundance. It's a vibrant, important festival. I hope the tireless souls who run it can guide it through the growing pains and continue to make it a positive experience for those of us who look forward to it every year.

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originally posted: 01/29/07 09:10:15
last updated: 01/30/07 07:58:54
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