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FILM FESTIVALS OF THE WORLD #2: Sundance Film Festival
by Chris Parry

Continuing our weekly look at the finest (and not so finest) film festivals that the world has to offer, today we take a peek at the creme de la creme of American indie film... at least as far as you can call films that have been approved, financed, and distributed by the studio system 'independent'. So what's Sundance all about? What does it cost to attend? Who will you bump into? How does it all work? Read on, dear film fan, for the lowdown on the higher-ups.

At one time, the Sundance Film Festival was one man's vision of a way to celebrate non-studio product; the unique, avant-garde, under-funded, non-commercial films that nobody really gave a rats behind about. That man was one Robert Redford, and when his celebrity friends started turning up to his week in the snow every year, Sundance became more than a simple collective of cinema boffins - it became a catchphrase that could be translated as 'celebs on holiday'.

Nowadays, over 25 years later, the name Sundance invokes cries of fascination and jealousy from the unconnected. "You're going to SUNDANCE?! OH MY GOD, YOU'RE SO LUCKY!"

And yeah, truth be told, you are. Attendance at the Sundance Film Festival may well be standard operational procedure for those high up in the entertainment biz, but for the poor fools like you and me at the bottom end of the spectrum it's expensive, involves a lot of line-ups, rejection letters and a whole lot of slipping on icy sidewalks.

And you have fun despite all that.

Sundance is where the powerplayers of both coasts meet. Harvey Weinstein strolls up Main St in his sweatpants, doing a deal with a starving documentary producer who is sleeping in his van. Dustin Hoffman sits next to you in a cafe and asks where they keep the brown sugar. Stephen Baldwin asks if it's okay if he can keep his cowboy hat on during the film, volunteering to take it off if it's in your way. And Britney and her entourage talk on cellphones during the first twenty minutes of a film, then leave, before th songstress complains that "you have to think" about films at Sundance.

Poor dear.

If you're a film freak, Sundance may not be the festival for you. Sure, there are multitudes of great films to see, but chances are you're not going to see them unless you can stand in low temperatures for long periods and not feel angry about having to do so.

If you're a celebrity freak, you'll love Sundance... but you're also a moron who personifies everything that is wrong with today's society, so I refuse to speak to you further.

If you're a filmmaker, then you already know that a spot at Sundance is the holy grail of filmmaking. You've undoubtedly paid your entry fee and received your rejection letter, and now you're hoping you can somehow convince Harvey to come see your film at Slamdunk or Tromadance. Lotsa luck...

So what's the Sundance skinny?


Where it be at: Park City, Utah (half an hour from Salt Lake City)
When it be at: Mid January every year (January 15th-25th in 2004)
How expensive it be: Hold on to your seat - this is going to be scary. In 2002, if you wanted to get an Express Pass that guaranteed you a seat in any flick you desired (for the first or second HALF of the festival), you'd be parting with $2500. If you were happy to only watch films at the Eccles theater, you were looking at $1500 (take into account, once more, that's $1500 per HALF of the festival). A ticket package (that's where you only get so many tickets and have to determine ahead of time which films you'll see) was $650 in 2002. The documentary package came in at $400.
The best value, however, may well be the Daytimer package, which would have set you back $350. What will it cost this year? Undoubtedly more, but exact details won't be released until closer to the end of the year.
Oh, one other thing, if you want one of those passes, you don't just buy one online... you have to put in a request and they'll let you buy one if there's enough room.
Number of films screened: 125+ features and docos, 60+ shorts.
Value for money: About $10 per movie shown if you get a pass, more if you don't (and can deal with the line-ups in the snow).

What you'll see: A boatload of movies that will be hit major and minor release schedules in the coming year, as well as loads more flicks that will get a video/DVD release on the strength of being a Sundance selection. There are also loads of documentaries, most of which are already slated for a TV release (or even produced by the TV stations that will be soon showing them) and midnight movies that sell out quick but are almost always a hoot.

Celebrity-spotting: Sundance is the only film festival where the media themselves are regarded by the celeb-watchers as celebrities. Watching them walking around like peacocks can often be as much fun as watching the celebs themselves trying to be 'human', but if you're into the whole star thing, you'll go crazy at Sundance. A typical party we attended last year included Peter and Jane Fonda, Anna Paquin, Ed Norton, Salma Hayek, Mare Winningham, Troy Garity, Holly Hunter, Nick Nolte, Forest Whitaker, Katie Holmes... but be prepared - even if you can get into the party, the velvet rope continues on inside, dividing the room between those you want to talk to, and those who are you.

Accomodation: If you get your own hotel room in Park City, you're a goof. You MUST share with other people, or you'll be throwing away thousands of dollars. Most average hotel suites that would cost $60 in other cities or $40 by an airport run at around $180-$280 a night in Park City during Sundance time. A condo, with three or four bedrooms, will run you about $350-450 a night - if you book three months in advance.
If you're happy to travel half an hour at the beginning and end of each day (and don't mind feeding parking meters and being buried in snow drifts) you can stay outside Park City at place like Provo or Salt Lake City (both of which host some screenings), or Heber City. Heber City hotels will run about $40 a night, which is a bargain if you have wheels, and no bargain if you don't.
The Chateau Apres, which is close to the ski lifts, runs around $80 a night for single folk or up to $105 a night for groups of four, but it fills early. Call 1-800-357-3556
Take note: The free bus services in Sundance stop after the last screening, soif you're not staying within walking distance of Main St, you're going to be inconvenienced a lot.

Transport: There are plenty of shuttle services that will bring you to Park City from the Salt Lake City airport, even if your flight home leaves at 6am (thanks to American Airlines for that little lesson in the hardships of travel). Expect to pay up to $25 for this service, but when the snow's coming down, you'll be happy to do so.
Getting around in Park City is a breeze, because the festival runs an awesome free bus service. Every five minutes these things come past on a non-stop loop from venue to venue to parking lot to HQ to venue. The drivers are a happy bunch, the volunteers used to herd you into them are all even happier, and the trip around the full circuit takes maybe 20 minutes.
Those with money opt to drive, for they are satan spawn. There's no parking in Park City, at least not until after 8PM, and the prospect of hundreds of rich LA people driving their SUVs in the snow for the first time should fill you with fear, if not downright panic. Learn to ride the bus, friends, or walk.

Parties: Over the years, the parties have become big business at Sundance. It used to be you'd get into a party and be happy with free drinks. Now there's free drinks, gourmet food, and bags of 'swag' that are filled with expensive sponsored crap that people don't really need, but will passinately fight for. If the sight of Jackie Bisset trying to rip a canvas Gucci sportsbag out of Katie Holmes' hands is something that will make your life complete, you must talk your way into a party at Sundance.
People used to go to parties in Park City to be seen. Now they go to 'score booty', and I'm not talking about the J-Lo kind of booty here.
Getting into these parties isn't always difficult. If you can find a publicist who works for a sponsor, befriend that person and ask about invites with a fifty dollar bill waving in their face.
Do not EVER fall for the old "Radiohead is going to be playing our party" line. Thousands fell for that a few years back and practically rioted in the snow trying to get in, only to find the Radiohead music playing was in the form of music videos from their new album.
Many of the better parties will be held in ski lodges, generally a short trip out of town and up the moutain. Sometimes these people will put a bus on to carry you in and back again, but they'll in all likelihood not want to start off a riot, so they'll make you wait in a back lane, in the snow, and you won't know what back lane until an hour before the party.
If this sounds like a chore - it is. But a few quickly downed shots of sponsor-provided vodka will fix that bad mood.
If you can't get into the big parties (and most can't), just walk down Main St and check out what's happening at any of the multitudes of smaller satellite festivals that run parallel with
Sundance each year. Most of the time they WANT you to come in, but don't expect swag. Or drinks. Or even, sometimes, heating...

Getting laid: Not going to happen - let that thought go, right now. Nobody is going to shag you when you're sleeping on your buddy's couch, especially when you're sharing it with four other people. I personally spent my first Sundance Festival sleeping on the washer/dryer because it was all I could afford, and though I did 'get some' eventually, we were of course walked in on before the deal was sealed. Unless you're bringing your sexual partner with you, you will be celibate at Sundance. No screw for you.

Best venues: The Eccles theater seats 1200 people, which makes it a greta place to see a good film but an awful place to see garbage. If you think walk-outs are distracting in a regular theater, imagine what happens when you multiply the audience by 4.
The Egyptian is another fine venue for watching a movie, mainly because it's close to the bars, nicely aged, and has a little atmosphere about it. But be prepared to stand in the cold for an hour plus if you don't have a ticket. And then you'll probably still not get one.

Worst venues: The Park City Library, Yarrow Hotel and Prospector Square host screenings, but they're not built for comfort, nor are they built for film, for that matter. These temporary facilities tend to fill quick (especialy the Library, which even press can't get into most of the time), so cast your eye on the Holiday Village for an easier option.

Places to hang out: It's all about Main Street, yo. Every restaurant is nearby, every bar is close, and if you can make the walk up the hill without snapping your front teeth on the ice-covered sidewalk, you'll rarely not have a good time near Main. As for specifics... I dunno. I go to parties. I'm special.
Skiing is a popular option, especially as the ski slopes end one block from Park City's Main St. The ski lifts actually leave from Main and travel over a lane of traffic, which is kinda neat.

Traps for young players: You MUST PREPARE! Every first timer at Sundance gets the filthy Sundance fever. My first year I picked up a case of pneumonia that took six months to shake. But be damned if I was going to spend my first Sundance in bed trying to get healthy. The rattle in my chest was worth it.
Drink plenty of water (the snow and cold will dehydrate you fast), pump yourself full of vitamins and echinecea, and be aware that if you bring a cold to the fest, it will get far, far worse the first day you're there, and every day from then on.
Also, don't dress up swanky. It's cold. You need a warm jacket, good shoes (that is, good snow-walking shoes), a hat and, if you're smart, gloves. Black is the preferred color, for all attire.

Press facilities/access: Limited, but efficient. Many movies can be viewed after hours by the press through the screeners available at Sundance HQ. Be warned though that these screeners are generally world movies, documentaries and the occasional (very occasional) un-signed indie feature.
The press screening rooms are pretty bad, but they at least show movies all day and night. The Eccles 'Black Box' screening room is as uncomfortable as any I've been in, and the Yarrow is hotter than a spoonful of four-alarm tobasco. The recent addition of screenings at the Holiday Village is a welcome addition, and one of the great undiscovered spots where a press guy can not feel like he's about to die of asphyxia.

The Hollywood Bitchslap final grade for Sundance: We're giving this one a B+, with predictions of greater things in the future. The major problem with Sundance is it has way outgrown its origins, and until a large cineplex is built in Park City that can house 75% of the screenings, and a humungous economy accommodation facility follows that, Sundance is really a combination of wild adventure, cinematic bliss and the earthly incarnation of the term 'when hell freezes over'.

Tune in next Monday for part three in this series when we travel to the other side of the tracks to take in the Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Festival in Melbourne, Florida.

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originally posted: 09/23/03 10:22:51
last updated: 12/31/03 13:18:41
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