The Festival Experience: A Guide to the Sundance

by Shala · January 14, 2013 · Articles, Featured, Features · 2 Comments

Hey there. It’s Shala from Life Between Films. I am now officially a new LAMB site contributor, focusing on film festival information, guides, and overall festing tips. So, if you ever wanted to attend a film festival, are attending soon, or have the possibility of attending one in the future, keep an eye out for my future featured posts. The Sundance Film Festival starts this week and is, in my opinion, the best festival around, kickstarting the careers of some of the best and well-known filmmakers – Steven Soderbergh, Darren Aronofsky, Quentin Tarantino – and touting some of the best film programming and award-nominated films (i.e. “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, Sundance Class of 2012). If you are interested in learning more about Sundance, I offer my advice or how to make the experience of attending a great one, primarily based on my past adventures at this festival:

The Basics

Sundance is a 10-day film festivals that takes place mid- to late-January every year with the 2013 dates being January 17th-27th. It is at Sundance you get to see some of the best independent films selected by the Sundance programming committee, hear panel discussion with the director and/or cast members following the screenings, and basically take part in the introduction of these films to the world. The majority of the festival (and all the action) takes place in the small town of Park City, Utah but there are additional film screenings in the surrounding areas like Salt Lake City and Ogden. Two parts of Park City – Main Street and Prospector Square – include many of the building and venues that are taken over with festival-related activities during this time. The films are screened mainly at city movie theaters and auditoriums so they have the feel of attending a regular movie. 

Festival Entry
Like many film festivals, entry into Sundance is open to the public and is ticket-based. What is alittle more unique about Sundance’s ticket process is that you have to first register for a time slot (doing the designated times) to purchase your ticket or ticket package. Usually ticket package registration is in late October/early November while advanced individual ticket registration is in late November/early December. Once you register for a time slot, you will be emailed a window in which you can log in and select your films (for packages, you will first get a slot to choose your package and then another one to select films). 

Tickets packages are available for those who may be attending the majority of the festival and want to see a large number of films. These packages can be theater specific (i.e. Eccles theater, the largest for Sundance, has a specific package for entry into screenings there) but most or based and priced on the number of tickets within the package and how early you will be able to choose your film selections. There are also options for film students and local Utah residents. People who have packages have first crack at buying tickets. Packages can range from $300 to an upwards of almost $3000.  It is common practice for a group of friends to share tickets within packages as you are allowed to buy something like up to 4 tickets for one screening. 

Those who would rather purchase tickets individually can do so. Advance individual tickets are alittle more expensive but comparable to movie theater tickets (approximately $15/each). No matter if its a premiere (first showing) or an additional showing, all tickets are priced the same. 

There is also an option to purchase festival credentials for $200. This photo badge is not used to gain entry into screenings but used to get into restrictive areas and events connected to the festival including the Sundance Music Cafe (which has great live music performances) and the Filmmakers Lodge (which has great film panels and discussions). All ticket packages come with two festival credentials. 

Travel & Lodging
Those attending Sundance may fly into Salt Lake City, which is approximately 45 minutes outside of Park City, and take a shuttle or taxi. You’re in Utah in the winter so much of the lodging available are at the ski resorts in the area (The Canyons, Deer Valley, Sundance) so you can go that route or find a hotel on or right off of Main Street in Park City. Another option (and one that may be less expensive) is a hotel in nearby towns like Heber and Midway which are only about 20 minutes from Main Street. As the main way to get around the festival is by the free Sundance shuttle buses, many of the hotels that are Sundance approved (you check the official festival website for lodging), even hotels in these areas, are guaranteed to be on the shuttle routes to Main Street and the festival theaters.  Most recently, Sundance has started shuttles between Park City and Salt Lake City so attendees can also see film screenings there. During the specified hours (usually starting early in the morning like 6am and ending around 9pm or so), shuttles can run every 10-15 minutes. 

Other Festival Tips

  • Before the festival, its good to sign up for festival emails to be notified on ticket registration, special events, and special appearances for the upcoming festival.  It is also great to follow the official Sundance twitter accounts (@sundancefest, @sundancefestnow) even during the festival to get up-to-date information on all the goings-on. For me, Sundance film festival gives you the best and most complete, all-access pass throughout the year to festival films and their progress from festival to theaters, background of Sundance Lab filmmakers and alums, the behind-the-scenes processes of bringing the festival to life, editorial and news on Sundance filmmakers, updates on what Sundance movies are playing in a theater near you, and lots more. During the festival, I think this feed a great resource, giving more updates on special events, ongoing filmmaker panels at the Filmmaker’s lodge and film screenings, give-aways, and up-to-the-minute news on your favorite actors and films. Following during the festival lets you know where you should be to have the best experience. What is also cool about Sundance is that they choose a few “guest tweeters” every festival, people in the industry (writers, directors, actors) who take control of the twitter feed for a day to give you a glimpse into what events that attend, who they meet and run into, and their film passions. 
  • To try and get into a screening that is sold out in advance, stop by one of the box offices to check for last-minute tickets early in the morning on the day of the screening as some tickets may be held and released at this time. Another option is to go to the theatre and “rush” tickets. About two hours before each screening (one hour if it is the first general screening of the day), wait list lines are open for that particular screening at the theaters. When you go to the wait list area, you will get a numbered ticket used to record your number in line. You then come back to the theater about thrity minutes before the screening, get in line by number, and wait to see if seats are released. Usually you won’t know until about 10 minutes before the screening is set to start. If they are, you can purchase tickets (cash only) and get into the screening. Please note that many theaters are strict in that if you’re not there before thirty minutes prior to the screening, you have to get at the end of the line no matter what. For some theaters, especially the large ones, chances are much better that rushing tickets will result in your entry. I have found that it is important to get to the theater at least two hours early to ensure you get a good number.  
  • First thing every morning, pick up a copy of the Sundance Festival Daily newspaper to find out about filmmaker interviews and other activities. Sundance is unique because not only does it set out to capitalize on its film scene but also Sundance puts alot into pubbing up its music scene, offering special live concerts at the Sundance Music Cafe and music events at the Sundance House.  After all, film and music often go hand in hand. 
  • Main Street is the place to be doing the festival. It is where the Sundance Festival Store, Festival Headquarters, and other Sundance venues are. If you walk up and down that street, the laws of the universe (and probability) say that you will spot someone famous.  The best place to spot celebrities is in front of the Entertainment Weekly studio as the magazine hold photo shoots and interviews there. The venue for the studio is never marked on the outside so try and pay attention to where alot of media types hang out outside. It is important to note that every year the festival changes where places like Festival Headquarters are housed; they aren’t in the same buildings on Main Street so you will have to take note of locations each year. 
  • Many people in the film industry (filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, media) attend the front end (first 5 days) of the festival. This is great in that this is the best time to spot celebrities and be assured that the director/cast will be there for the post-screening panel. However, because of this, it is tougher to get into some of the higher profile screenings as these people usually have ticket packages (and therefore first dibs on tickets) or even may have reserved seats at the theater.  The back-end of the festival is quieter but if you main goal is just to attend screenings, this is the time to go, especially since lodging and travel is most likely cheaper at this time. 

For more details on the festival straight from the source, visit the official Sundance festival page. If you have any specific questions, I will be happy to answer to the best of my ability; just shoot me an email (lifebetweenfilms at gmail), contact me on twitter (@shalathomas), or leave a comment. I am leaving for Park City this week so follow my twitter feed for festival commentary while I’m there!

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