This year, don’t blow it. Instead, do yourself a favor and attend the Sundance Film Festival. As one of the country’s best know film galas it has great movies, celebrities and wild parties — and if you happen to be living along the Wasatch Front, it’s virtually in your backyard.
That said, navigating Sundance can be a little tricky. Sundance films, for example, play in theaters spread out across Park City, Salt Lake, Ogden and the Sundance Ski Resort. Getting tickets is also more involved than simply walking up to a box office and buying them. And of course, there are the movies themselves — though some are great, others aren’t. Still, Sundance has a lot to offer. Remember that films like Little Miss Sunshine, Napoleon Dynamite and (500) Days of Summer all premiered at past festivals.
So, to help make the Sundance experience a little easier, here are a few tips and tricks. For more information or for the festival program, visit the Sundance Festival Web site.
Seeing movies: Unfortunately, you can’t just walk up to the theater to buy Sundance tickets. Instead, there are a few different ways to get in. First, if you were really on the ball, you could have registered several months ago to buy tickets as a local. I’ve never planned that far ahead, but you might want to try this next year. The second surest way to get in is to buy your tickets online here, beginning January 18th. If your movie isn’t going to be very popular, this might work. However, my experience is that the best movies are typically sold-out before they even become available online (or at the main box offices).
So, the other way to get into a film is to go standby. You can find more info about this option here, but basically go to the theater where your movie is playing two hours before it starts and get a number (on a little slip of paper) from a festival worker. Once you have your number you can leave, then come back an hour before it starts and line up according to your number. After everyone with a ticket has been admitted, they start letting in people on the standby line for $15. If you’re near the beginning of the line you have a really good chance of getting in. In fact, I’ve gone to Sundance for years and only didn’t get in once (and then it was because I showed up too late to get a low standby number).
What I also like to do is pick up a standby number, but then wait outside the theater for scalpers. There are almost always people trying to sell tickets they can’t use or don’t want. Also, most of these people are pretty cool and won’t charge you more than what they paid ($15). If someone wants more than $20 for a ticket I usually just wait for the next person to come along. I’ve actually scored free tickets a few times from really generous people. However, be sure to check the location on the ticket — the same movies play at different theaters and you don’t want to accidentally buy a ticket for the right movie in the wrong theater. (For example, a guy once tried to sell me a ticket for a movie in Ogden when I was in Park City. I had almost handed him the cash when I noticed.)
And finally, check the size of the theater where your movie is showing. (Theater sizes are listed here.) If it’s a small theater and you have a high standby number, you might want to look at other options. On the other hand, some of the larger theaters let in quite a few people on standby.
When to go: More than anything else, the time and day that you attend Sundance will determine what kind of experience you have. This year Sundance begins on Thursday, January 21st. That means that the first weekend (Jan. 22-24) will be the busiest time of the festival. If you want to see celebrities or just people watch, that’s the time to do it. On the other hand, the festival is most crowded at the beginning. That means it can be harder to get into movies, there’s more traffic, and everything is a bit more hectic. In other words, if you want to see the glitz and glam, go to the festival during the first week or so. If all you care about is getting into a film screening, the second week is probably your best bet. Even the second weekend (Jan. 29-30) will be relatively low-key and easy to navigate compared to the first few days.
The time of day you attend is also vital. The best time to get into a movie is the morning, and the earlier the better. It shouldn’t be a surprise that fewer people want to see movies at 9 a.m., but there is also less traffic and less competition for standby numbers. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of people out so it doesn’t feel as glamourous in the morning (and there are no celebrities). Mornings and evenings both have their pros and cons and, if you can, you might want to try both. If you’re only going to the festival once, decide what matters most to you and choose accordingly.
Where to go: Sundance mostly takes place in Park City. If you want to experience the true “festival atmosphere,” that’s the place to do it. There are also a lot of screenings at various theaters in Salt Lake City. Though these screenings can feel a little less exciting, sometimes they’re easier to get in to (especially going standby). There are also some screenings at the Sundance Resort in Utah County, and in Ogden. As with timing, figuring out which city you want to visit will have a huge impact on what kind of experience you have; I’d recommend trying out Park City at least once, but if you just want to see a movie you might want to choose a more remote option.
Getting around: If you go to Park City, the most important thing you need to know is that you can park for free at the LDS church building on Monitor Drive (except on Sunday). On the festival’s parking Web site, this lot is simply listed as the “Monitor Drive Parking Lot,” though it is, in fact, a church. For some reason, this parking lot also seems to be less known than others around Park City and I have never had any trouble finding a spot. The only downside is that it’s kind of far away from most of the theaters.
Luckily, Sundance has a free bus system that runs frequently and goes all over the city. Just go to the edge of the parking lot and wait for a bus. If you aren’t sure which bus to get on, ask the driver if he/she is going to the theater you want. Using this system intimidated me before I had ever done it, but it turns out it’s extremely easy and user friendly. If you want to bring a transit map (which isn’t a bad idea), you can find one here.
If you park somewhere besides the Monitor Drive church building be prepared to pay and/or wait around. Don’t try to drive directly to the theater where your film is screening, as there won’t be parking and traffic will probably cause you to be late. If you’re going to Salt Lake, the Sundance Resort or Ogden, parking and buses are pretty typical for those areas (but plan for heavier crowds).
Choosing a movie: It’s tough to say beforehand what the “hits” of the festival are going to be. I’ve seen really big movies like The Science of Sleep and Moon, as well as smaller films and documentaries. I’ve really enjoyed both. If seeing big, famous movies is important to you, look for ones with movie stars in them; oddly for a festival that claims to be “indie,” there are quite a few of these. However, don’t be afraid to see something smaller or more obscure. I once saw a Russian film called The Island (it did not star Scarlett Johansson) that was a poignant meditation on faith and religion. The best thing to do is simply peruse the festival program and find a story that seems compelling. The tickets page has PDFs listing the films, and there is more info here and a schedule here. Also, many entertainment websites will post “must see” lists. Try googling the festival and checking out what the critics recommend.
The other way to find films is to research which ones are being purchased. One of the biggest reasons independent film festivals exist is so indie filmmakers can sell their movies to big studios or distributors. The distributors (companies like Sony and Universal) can buy movies for less than it’d cost to make them themselves, and the indie filmmakers can make some money and find a wider audience. This means that if you can find out which movies have been purchased by big companies, you can go see movies that are likely to become wide releases later in the year.
Other Stuff: Besides films, Sundance has a lot of other stuff going on. There are a bunch of big parties, for example, and though you’re probably not on the guest list, schmoozing your way in isn’t impossible. (I’ve never had much success at this myself, but I did once date a girl who was practically a professional at it and we got in to all kinds of stuff. So it’s possible, if kind of difficult.)
I also know people who just like to go up and walk around during the festival. Make sure to dress warm if you do this, but it can also be fun. Sundance also sponsors a bunch of music performances, panel discussions and other interesting things. You can find more information about these events here and by checking Google and Facebook for other events.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.
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