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Sundance Film Festival Goes Virtual, But Also National With Screenings in 24 States

All films will have live premieres online, but arthouse theaters around the country will also partner with Sundance for screenings and events


In an attempt to maintain a sense of community at a time when large gatherings are impossible, the Sundance Film Festival has announced an ambitious combination of virtual screenings and a network of local events in more than 30 cities around the United States.

“Festivals are complicated machines,” Sundance festival director Tabitha Jackson told TheWrap. “To have to disassemble one that’s been running smoothly for 40 years and reassemble it is about understanding, what do we hold tight to, and what do we let go? What happens when you redistribute the moving parts of a festival from Park City to Park City plus 25 other states plus an online platform? How do we preserve the energy, so that audiences, artists and industry are all getting what they need from a festival?”

In place of the usual 11-day event in Park City, Utah, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will take place over seven days, from Jan. 28 through Feb. 3. While the festival currently plans to hold events at The Ray, a Park City theater that is one of the festival’s usual venues, the 70-plus films in the lineup will all have virtual premieres followed live Q&As. Those premieres can be viewed anywhere in the United States, and in some cases globally as well.

In addition to those events, the festival has partnered with drive-ins, arthouse theaters and community organizations to create a Satellite Screen network. These venues, which include the Rose Bowl and Mission Tiki Drive-In in Los Angeles and the Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab in New York, will show festival films (health and safety guidelines permitting) and create additional local programming to run during the festival.

The key factor as Sundance began planning in March, Jackson said, was the recognition that “being in the same physical space may not be possible or safe. The fact that you can be in the first audience for a film safely from where you are, and still have that feeling of ‘nobody has seen this film, is this going to be the one?,’ I think that’s extraordinary.”

Sundance is expected to announce its full lineup of films in mid-December, and its slate of special events and talks in January. It will present fewer films than it normally does, because of the shorter duration of the festival; the same number of new films will premiere per day as it showed during its 11-day fests.

New films will debut for the first six days of the festival, with each movie getting a dedicated premiere slot between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Mountain Standard Time. (The seventh day will be devoted to repeat screenings of the festival’s award winners.)

The custom-designed online platform will enable viewers to enter a virtual lobby prior to each screening, and also to participate in a live Q&A after the screening. Viewers can begin screen the film live at its announced start time, or start watching within three hours of that time. “What we learned from talking to the artists is that when they present their work to an audience for the very first time, they want to have response from that audience,” Jackson said. “So every single screening will have a live Q&A.”

Films will be available in a press screening room the day after their premieres, and to the public on demand on the second day after the premiere. Films in the Short Film and Indie Series programs will be available on the platform for the entire length of the festival. All of the films will be closed-captioned on demand, and Q&As will have live subtitles.

Additional online areas during the festival include Festival Village, where partners and sponsors can host a variety of events; Main Street, with digital partner spaces for conversations and musical performances; and the Artist Lounge, for artist programming and private events.

In addition, the New Frontier section will consist of 14 innovative works and will be accessible on a bespoke virtual platform that can be accessed by computers and VR headsets. The section will also feature the New Frontier Gallery, for live performances; Cinema House, for feature films; and Film Party, an interactive social space.

The Satellite Screens initiative will take place in collaboration with 32 different organizations or arthouses in 24 different states, plus Puerto Rico. While most will screen Sundance films, additional programming is being created by the individual organizations – with the physical details to be worked out depending on the pandemic restrictions in each city at the end of January.

“Each arthouse has an idea of what they want to express,” Jackson said. “Outdoor screenings and drive-ins feel safer than in-cinema screenings now, but it’s all about what’s safe nearer the time.”

Here are the Satellite Screens locations:

Birmingham with Sidewalk Film Festival
Sidewalk Film Center, Sidewalk Drive-In

with The Loft Cinema
The Loft Open Air Cinema

Montclair with American Cinematheque
Mission Tiki Drive-In
Pasadena with the Rose Bowl
Rose Bowl Drive-In
San Francisco with The Roxie Theater
Roxie Theater, Fort Mason Drive-In

with Denver Film
Sie FilmCenter

Key West with Tropic Cinema
Tropic Cinema, The Key West Lighthouse, The Truman Little White House, The Ernest Hemingway House and Museum
Miami with Third Horizon and O Cinema
South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center

Atlanta with Atlanta Film Society
The Plaza Theater, Plaza Drive-In, Dad’s Garage Drive-In
Macon with Macon Film Festival
Douglass Theatre

with Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA)

Iowa City
with FilmScene
FilmScene at The Chauncey

with mama.film
mama.film microcinema, Wichita Art Museum, Groover Labs

with The Speed Art Museum
Speed Art Museum

New Orleans
with New Orleans Film Society
The Broad Theater

with Maryland Film Festival
Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theater

with Coolidge Corner Theatre
Coolidge Corner Theatre

with Cinema Detroit

Minneapolis-St. Paul
with FilmNorth
Riverview Theater

New York:
with The Jacob Burns Film Center
Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab

with Gateway Film Center
Gateway Film Center

with Circle Cinema
Circle Cinema, Circle Cinema Drive-In, Admiral Twin Drive-In, Philbrook Museum, OSU-Tulsa, Tulsa University, Gilcrease Museum

with BlackStar Film Festival

Puerto Rico:
San Juan
with AsociaciĆ³n de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (AdocPR)
Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR)

South Carolina:
with The Luminal Theater
Spotlight Cinemas Capitol 8

Memphis with Indie Memphis
Malco Summer Drive-In
Nashville with Belcourt Theatre
Belcourt Theatre

Austin with Austin Film Society
AFS Cinema
Dallas with Aviation Cinemas
Texas Theatre
Houston with Houston Cinema Arts Society
MoonStruck Drive-In, DeLUXE Theater

Park City
The Ray
Salt Lake City with Salt Lake Film Society

Seattle with Northwest Film Forum

Tickets will go on sale to the general public beginning on Jan. 7. Jackson said that ticket prices are under consideration, but added, “The value of accessibility is in the front of our minds as we’ve thought about ticket prices.”

She thinks that the new format will lead to increased ticket sales and a larger audience, but is cautious to make any predictions. “As we look at other festivals, their reach has increased and their audiences have definitely increased,” she said. “I would think that having the accessibility should increase the size of our audience, too – but in this world, there are no assumptions. We have to be humble going into this.

Details will be available later in December at festival.sundance.org.