Sundancing in the Snow

See the Sundance logo on films and wonder what it means? Follow certain celebs on Insta and curious as to what they are doing tromping around the snow of Utah in January? I just finished attending Sundance Film Festival 2020 so I’ll recap it for you – (here’s another good article on the festival from a different perspective).

Sundance Film Festival was created by Actor / Director / Producer – Robert Redford in 1985 to promote the opportunities of independent films while providing a way to marry his love of film with his love of the State of Utah where he had bought land in 1956. It is held every January in Park City, UT and brings some of the top film talent from around the world.

Sundance however, is not just a film festival, it is also a ski resort (Sundance Mountain Resort), a conservatory for grooming film talent (Sundance Institute), a TV station (SundanceTV), a catalog (Sundance Catalog), and a collective of high-end movie theatres (Sundance Cinemas – now part of AMC Cinemas).

Because of the sheer inconvenience of Sundance Film Festival there really are two ways to handle it as a local:

  1. Get out of town, rent your place out and avoid it all together. Because housing is so scarce this time of year, people are able to make a lot renting their places. Whole businesses on Main Street will do corporate buyouts that will pay their rent for the year. It’s actually financially worth it for them to hire movers to move out their entire store and put it into storage for the week while not being open – it’s why there are a few not so great businesses on the street that manage to survive because of this strategy!
  2. Embrace it whole heartedly and enjoy it.  I elect to follow the latter because the idea of spending over a week as a hermit while so much excitement is going on outside my home sounds sad and depressing.

For your reference should you choose to join in on the fun – here are my past experiences with Sundance – from purchasing tickets through enjoying movies.

My first exposure to Sundance was when I lived in Madison, WI where the first Sundance movie theatre had just opened. A massive upgrade to the normal theatre it provided access to independent films (along with mainstream movies) amidst a luxury eating and dining experience – the best part, you could reserve your own seat ahead of time (a neat feature in a time when that wasn’t the norm).

Fast forward a few years (2015), and I was temporarily living in Park City, UT for ski season  – my cousin who is in the film industry in Hollywood (she’s an editor and works on really cool projects – including American Horror Story, Leverage, Masters of Sex, David Makes Man, and now Star Trek: Picard) came to visit, and had tickets for us to see a movie. While I don’t remember a ton about the movie  – it wasn’t really my genre of preference, I do remember the experience – the opportunity to see a ski town transformed into a beehive of activity with everyone excited to run around seeing movies. Not only did we see a movie, but also got to attend an industry event and after party – which was neat to experience.

Two years later I was back in Park City with my significant other and got several ‘local’s’ tickets from my uncle. Sundance does a lot to make sure that the locals are taken care of during the festival as it knows that it has a large footprint and drastically disturbs the status quo of the city – traffic, road closures, restaurant buy-outs, sold out lodging, and empty ski runs (it’s the absolute best time to come skiing because everyone is out watching movies) – if you’ve ever been to Austin, TX’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, you’ve experienced a similar transformation. That year we ended up seeing 3 movies – juggling working remotely around our films during the week, and giving away our remaining tickets as we felt we’d enjoyed the experience but ultimately had to balance office commitments.

While I didn’t have the chance to go again the next year as I was living elsewhere, once I was back in PC, I made sure to get another local’s 10 pack. That year (2019) I convinced my Dad to join me, and we had a great week skiing and seeing movies. Together we saw four shows, and while I went to the Silicon Slopes Tech conference, he took the extra two tickets and saw a few additional movies.  It was a really great way to spend quality time with my Dad.

What made that experience even better was something that started out as a huge frustration… I followed the standard process for buying my tickets – spending money that I didn’t have at the time to reserve my pass months before the festival, but I never got any notification to choose my shows – I’d received all the other communications related to my ticket pass and the event – so when I showed up on the established date to pick up my passes, I just thought that was when I’d get to choose my movies (never having been through the formal process before myself I didn’t know that the time to select the movies had already come and gone and that everything was sold out).

To set the stage further for what occurred – I was amidst recovery from excruciating emotional trauma, my finances were devastated and money was really tight. I was thrilled to have a week with my Dad, but the time away from work was going to be a strain, and I’d done everything possible to be prepared (had all the dates blocked on my calendar months in advance, checked the website regularly for updates, and had elected not to ski on the date of ticket pick up – a Saturday, key skiing time – so that I’d be there that morning to get my passes). So imagine my crushing devastation when I go into downtown to pick up my tickets and get the book of all the films and drive the 15 minutes back home to then comb through the films and make my selections to then read the tickets and realize that they are just vouchers and are only good for the waitlist line or upon exchange at the box office (which is no longer open for ticket exchanges until the festival starts, aka when everything is literally completely sold out and the city is a mad house and it will take 2 hours to get downtown and there’s no parking).

The shaking nausea of anxiety creeping over me as I realize my tickets are worthless, that all the time I’ve spent being prepared was a waste, and that I effectively loaned money interest free that I didn’t really have while incurring my own credit card interest on it for nothing. I was sick. I drove back downtown, thinking there had to be some mistake – walking into the box office asking what we could do to resolve the issue, and being told I’d have to come back in person later in the week (when I was to be in Chicago for work – so that wasn’t an option). I started sobbing. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve been so completely emotionally exhausted. The poor girl at the box office just stood there helplessly and told me I could request a refund via customer service, but that there was nothing she could do to help. She then offered me a hug – which I refused on principle; I wasn’t crying because of the tickets, I was a sobbing mess because I’d been holding literally everything in my life together, and this was the final straw that caused it to all collapse. Walking out of the box office, I vowed that this wasn’t going to be how this ended, that I would be going to Sundance movies with my Dad, and that it was happening this way for a reason – even though it seemed really shitty at the time.

So… rather than vent via social media, or waste further time complaining to a nameless customer service inbox, I took my disappointment over the failed process straight to the top** – I researched the CEO of Sundance, and messaged her on LinkedIn (only means of direct communication with her I had access to) calmly expressing my challenges with the flawed process and asking for her help to remedy the issue. That next morning (a Sunday) I had a direct email response from the CFO of Sundance (Betsy Wallace) asking to spend time talking with me to understand the problem, and to find a way to remedy the situation. Not only was Sundance leadership incredibly focused on resolving the issue, they also asked to meet with me after the festival to discuss any additional opportunities for optimization and improvement. I was so impressed by their proactive solution-oriented approach and by their openness to receive feedback! In addition, they got me tickets to all the shows I had wanted to see (and delivered them directly to my house – major thanks to the Sundance head of customer service – Fabian Castillo) – including tickets to see Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile with Zach Efron at Sundance Resort – which meant my Dad and I got to spend the day skiing, followed by drinks and dinner at the famous Owl Bar before our movie – where the director – Joe Berlinger came out afterwards to discuss the film – it was incredible; and a memory I’ll have forever.

Getting to ski at Sundance Resort is a memory unto its own – a beautiful boutique ski experience tucked into the Wasatch mountains, it offers breathtaking views, varied terrain, and very fun après skiing atmosphere. It’s much smaller in acreage than the mountains I typically ski, and as a result provides the opportunity to really get familiar with each run and all the different ways to enjoy it. Before I ever got to ski Sundance however, I had heard that their Sunday brunch is fantastic, so one weekend that prior fall when my Mom was in town visiting – we drove up to see it – fully amazed by its beauty, and enchanted by its charm. Consequently, when I then got to go back with my Dad and enjoy it both by skis and through the experience of a feature film, I was awestruck.

Post Sundance ‘19, the Sundance leadership did round back and we had lunch which was a really enlightening opportunity to discuss the festival, and all the ways Sundance is working to make it the best experience for its attendees. I remain so impressed at what they are able to execute upon – the sheer logistics, planning, safety, and excellence that they bring to the event is truly incredible, and a pleasure to be a part of.

And, I’m happy to report – the process this past year for 2020 was far more transparent with all key dates outlined online upfront, and numerous email communications throughout the process. This year, I had the joy of playing host to a dear friend of mine who joined not just for Sundance, but also skiing and the Silicon Slopes Tech Conference. We had the absolute best week seeing movies in the evenings, skiing during the day, all the while eating great food, and then wrapping the week up with some educational sessions at the tech conference where we got to see Mark Zuckerberg speak (which was awesome, and very well done).

If you have any interest in attending Sundance 2021 (and I highly recommend doing so) here’s an overview of the process. Check out Sundance.org for more details so that you can make sure to get your tickets and reserve your accommodations! And if you like to ski – try to schedule your movies so that you ski during the day and see a movie each night. I personally feel like a movie a day is enough (more than that and I start to turn into a blob), and if you’re skiing during the day the slopes are absolutely empty!

The Ticketing & Movie Attendance Process:

  • Due to the huge volume of people who choose to come (estimated 122,000 in 2019); the ticketing process is a bit of an ordeal that spans months. Starting in October there’s a set day and time that ticket passes go on sale dependent on what type of ticket pass you qualify for. You must have a Sundance online account and be logged in to join the digital waitlist to then be granted access to purchase your ticket pass – This digital waitlist typically takes an hour and is over lunch so I always schedule a calendar invite and hover over my computer while I wait for my place in line.
  • Once you’ve purchased your ticket pass, you’re then given notice that at some point in early January you will be given a date and time to make your movie selections. When you finally receive this, you again must be at your computer at the exact time you wish to make your ticket selections; thus fulfilling your ticket package. Because there are so many theatres (16) showing movies all day for 10 days across Park City, Sundance Resort and Salt Lake City – there are a lot of options across a lot of genres of films. However, because of the high volume of attendees – movies sell out rapidly, so securing your selections based on the time of day you are available to see films, in the theatres you want to go to (ex: theatres in SLC are way easier to navigate) is a challenge.
  • Then once you’ve chosen your films, a few days later you get to pick up your tickets at the box office.
  • For each movie, typically the goal is to arrive about an hour before the start of the film to ensure your spot in line. While waiting in the cold (January in the mountains isn’t typically warm) doesn’t sound fun – it actually is great – being around so many people from all over the world, discussing movies is awesome – it’s neat to see what connects us, vs. all the things that we are used to dividing us.
  • Once the wait is over they usually let attendees into the movie theatres about 20 minutes before the show so that you may find a seat, and then run to the bathroom or grab a refreshment (though most theatres only allow water into the show). Once the movie starts – it will be the best-behaved audience you’ve ever seen; I’ve never heard a cell phone go off or been amongst a chatty group.
  • Once the movie concludes often times the director or key members of the film team or cast will come out for a Q&A with the audience – this is always really cool as it provides an inner look into the artistry behind the film, and the thinking and insights that went into creating it. Even if you aren’t in the film industry or didn’t enjoy the film you just saw; seeing how much goes into the creation of a movie is really interesting. For example, we saw a few horror movies this year – which are not typically my fave… however afterwards hearing about how they were created went a long way towards making sleep possible that evening, and it was super interesting to hear about the creative process.
  • In addition to movies, there are lots of different events and various activities (many are private / industry only, but there are many that are open to the public – it’s all in the festival information book / on the App, so check out what may be of interest to you!)
  • Wait listing: A great way to see movies, if your time is flexible and you don’t mind some disappointment. The app lets you queue for wait list spots then, based on remaining availability once they accept ticket holders, wait listers are granted admittance to the films. While not a guarantee of seeing a movie – you can sometimes get into shows that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise. For me, I prefer to maximize my time, and getting around town to different theatres is challenging, so I would rather have my movies confirmed ahead of time.

**I firmly believe business owners or executives want to resolve the issues that their customers are experiencing, and that too often they don’t know about significant issues in time to be able to resolve them diplomatically before they are blown out of proportion. Unfortunately, customer service representatives usually aren’t equipped to handle the more difficult customer issues and also aren’t well educated on when to escalate those issues internally (which further frustrates customers). As a result, I always take my feedback, issues, or grievances to the top whenever possible.

Movies I’ve seen through the years at Sundance:

2015

The Summer of Sangailė  – A Lithuanian coming of age film.

2017

Before I Fall – Loved this, a modern day female High School Groundhog Day.

The Big Sick – The crowd favorite at Sundance that year.

Wind River  – Absolutely outstanding. Jeremy Renner & Elizabeth Olsen were fabulous. Taylor Sheridan, the Director came out and applauded the audience before the movie for being up to watch such an intense film at 9 am. It was gripping, and upsetting, and so incredibly well done.

2019

Velvet Buzzsaw – A quirky, but very well done satire.

Sonja: The White Swan – A great look at one of the best figure skaters, and actresses of all time.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile – A gripping depiction of the Ted Bundy murders, from the perspective of someone who loved him.

The Mustang – A beautiful film  about the power of animal therapy, and the redemption available even to the most damaged and destructive.

2020

The Night House – A tragic tale of loss, and how it haunts us.

The Last Thing He Wanted – I fell asleep, it was very disjointed and a major disappointment given the A list cast (Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck and William Dafoe.

Charter – A compelling depiction of divorce and what happens when the mother walks away.

Relic – A haunting rendering of dementia retold as a horror story.

Dream Horse – A heartwarming rendering of the true story about a racehorse and the community who rallies together to raise him.

All my best,

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