The Journal takes in Sundance Film FestivalFeb 08, 2021 09:48AM ● By Tom Haraldsen
This is the 17th year I’ve been lucky enough to cover the Sundance Film Festival, and by far the warmest one for me. Of course, since this year’s event has been all virtual and I’ve enjoyed watching films and being part of interviews from my home, well, of course it’s been warmer than winter in Park City!
It began on Jan. 28 with an opening day press conference and opening night press event from festival organizers. Thursday morning, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam and festival director Tabitha Jackson greeted media and SFF ticket holders the virtual nature of this year’s event would allow it to reach its largest audience ever. Last year’s in-person event in Park City drew an estimated 116,000 attendees. Jackson said this year’s reach would be announced after the festival concluded on Wednesday (the number wasn’t available by our press deadline).
“We knew that this year’s festival would explode in a new direction, given our present reality,” Jackson said. “We’d have to take the pieces of our essence and blend them together, to complete reimagine Sundance and create and design moments of connection.”
Putnam said organizers “were lucky because we got to watch 10 months of how other festivals were operating in this environment. So much of the past year has felt like flying a plane while we’re still building it.” That said, she added that organizers had met and exceeded the goals they set for audience reach.
In-person screenings were cancelled, and as COVID numbers continued to grow in many parts of the nation and world, planned screenings at other venues such as drive-in theaters were also called off. So the only way to participate this year was virtually.
Both Jackson and Putnam hope this year is a one-off, and that the event can return to Park City next January. “I can’t wait to be back together in a collective experience,” Putnam said. “And back in Utah, back in Park City. That, for sure, will be part of our future, as it has been part of our past.”
Thursday night’s kickoff included a musical performance from the Northern Ute Tribe and a recorded message from Robert Redford – the actor and filmmaker, and Sundance Institute’s founder.
“Every artist holds a mirror to their piece of the universe, to make the hidden visible, the unknown familiar,” Redford said. “Even though we have been separated, we are still bound together. We dream under the same sky, filled with stardust.”
He said that some of that stardust formed the Utah deserts and mountains “where, years ago, early artists left their mark. They stretched out their hands and pressed them firm against the cool rock. Each handprint is unique, a poem unto itself. And each is proof of an impulse so utterly human, so universal: To say I am here. You are here. We are here. And we have a story to tell.”
Jackson said the festival would have 73 feature films shown in designated time slots for a premiere, with a second screening two days later. This allowed festival goers and us writers to see movies on our own schedules, and helped prevent overlapping of movies and events, something we all have to balance as we attend the festival.
As the opening event ended, the premieres began.