You’ll feel famous and fabulous when mixing and mingling at the world-renowned festival in Park City, Utah — even if you’re sleeping in a bathtub.
There were bodies all over my hotel room—curled up on the couch, stretched out on the carpet, snoring beside me. Fortunately, I actually knew these slumbering refugees: old friends who expressed a sudden, urgent desire to see me when I mentioned having a hotel room in Park City, Utah. Given the circumstances, I couldn’t really fault them for appropriating my floor space. This was Sundance, America’s most famous film festival. If you get a chance to go, you take it. Each January, close to 300 short and feature-length films representing the best independent cinema in the nation— and possibly the world—flicker across 18 different screens for 10 entire days. For the cinephile, it’s the ultimate all-you-can-see spree, a film binge constrained only by one’s ability to score tickets and stay awake.
Those who dream of attending this debutante ball of cinema needn’t have a fairy godmother or an industry connection—the festival is open to anyone willing to navigate its logistic hurdles. Early planning is helpful; attending in 2007 is not out of the question, but less-impulsive types should set their sights on 2008.
Nobody who went to the festival in its infancy would have imagined today’s sold-out screenings and snaking lines. Back in 1978, the Utah/United States Film Festival—as Sundance was then clunkily called—was just a minor Salt Lake City event created by the Utah Film Commission to promote tourism. Then, in 1981, the festival moved to Park City and serendipitously crossed paths with Robert Redford, who had just founded the Sundance Institute (named for his Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid role) in a scenic canyon 38 miles outside town. Redford’s vision of creating a nurturing community for artistic experimentation dovetailed perfectly with the existing event, and by 1985 the institute had taken over festival operations.
Before long, Sundance’s reputation was established by the now mythic debuts of directors Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. Hits such as The Blair Witch Project, Memento, and Super Size Me have only upped the expectation of big breaks and dazzling discoveries.
In 2005, as I sat in the packed Racquet Club Theatre and the lights dimmed for a screening of Me and You and Everyone We Know, I could feel the air crackling with the sense of possibility. It was a level of excitement I’d expect to precede a Tom Cruise blockbuster about exploding asteroids, not a low-budget, celebrity-free film directed by an eccentric performance artist. In this case, the risks paid off. The film was magical and wise and wickedly funny, and when first-time director Miranda July stepped up to the Q&A podium like a nervous colt finding her legs, the audience roared with approval.
So addictive are these up-close-and-personal screenings that some festivalgoers spend their entire time in Park City dashing from one theater to the next, gobbling up films like Milk Duds. But memorable Sundance experiences don’t happen just in front of a movie screen, as anyone who has strolled down Park City’s snow-dusted Main Street during the height of the festival can attest.
Here, the mood resembles a midwinter Mardi Gras, with industry insiders exchanging business cards like cheap beads and celebrities flashing familiar smiles amid a bustle of zoom lenses and boom microphones. Mere mortals can join in the fun, digging into pumpkinseed-crusted trout at Robert Redford’s chic Zoom restaurant or popping into the trendy Bunya Bunya boutique to find that perfect pink faux-leopard coat.
Actually, a ski outfit might be a better investment, considering that the Park City Mountain Resort’s chairlift whisks skiers straight from downtown up to 3,300 acres of sugary powder just begging to be carved. As if "the greatest snow on earth" weren’t reason enough to hit the slopes, Park City’s Quickstart pass grants free skiing for airline passengers on the day they arrive. It’s good at the Mountain Resort, the nearby Canyons, or the skiers-only Deer Valley, which hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Once darkness falls, the lights from countless industry parties twinkle in the windows of Main Street—an inviting sight except for the cross-armed bouncers flanking the doors. Successfully crashing these exclusive soirees is a badge of honor for some festivalgoers, whose infiltration methods would put a CIA operative to shame.
Given my shoddy skills at celebrity impersonation, credential manipulation, and security guard seduction, my one hope was that a lively conversation in line or on the shuttle bus would lead to a coveted invitation. The nights I came up empty, it was a cold, lonely walk back to the hotel room. Thank goodness I had friends—oh so many, many friends—waiting inside.
Photography by Jill Orschel, courtesy Sundance Institute
This article was first published in January 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.