My Very First Sundance: Ten Lessons Learned

9 a.m. Park City

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our coverage of Sundance 2010. There still may be a few more Sundance-related pieces kicking around in the near future but in the meantime, I thought I might share some of the things I learned from my very first year at Sundance. I’ve always dreamed of going, and for the most part, I can say that it lived up to all my expectations. That said, hit the jump for some of the things I learned at Sundance 2010. Those of you who have already been – and some that haven’t – may find these observations stunningly obvious, but they’re new to me. [Note: All of the photographs in this post were taken by me using my iPhone, and edited using iPhone apps]

Panorama: Park City on a clear day #sundance

The volunteers/residents of Park City are the salt of the earth – Whether they are dealing with vomiting bus-riders or answering the same question for the 500th time, the people who volunteer at Sundance and the locals in Park City are amazingly patient and nice, always willing to help out whenever possible. They enhance the Sundance experience in countless ways, both tangibly and intangibly.

The snow. My god. The snow. – I come from Boston, where we regularly get a foot or two of snow during winter snowstorms, but nothing could really prepare me for the nonstop onslaught that was Park City, Utah’s winter. We received 36 inches of snow in the first 72 hours we were there, and many of us had to frequently travel from theater to theater. It’s cold, it’s snowy, it’s wet, and it’s brutal. Wear boots!

Bloggers making their way to the box office at 7:30 am in a snow storm

Sundance is expensive – This is probably obvious to many of you, but it might be useful for people who’ve never been to Sundance (but have always wanted to) for me to describe the scale of the costs: Between airfare, lodging, and meals for a substantial portion of the festival’s 10 days, my costs were over $1,500. And I lived in a condo with 10 other dudes. This does not include the price of tickets ($15 each) or passes.

Panorama: the blogger condo with @slashfilm @rejects @brotodeau in their element

Demand in Park City for everything is high, so if you decide to go, expect it to take a significant chunk out of your income.

Most of the food is bad (and expensive) – Many of the theaters, interview venues, and party locations are situated on Main Street in Park City, which is also where you’ll find dozens of restaurants. Since you might not have too much time between screenings to make it back to your place of lodging, you’ll probably end up eating at a lot of these places. Most of these restaurants will serve some form of bar food, which won’t do your diet any favors. There are also poor imitations of Asian restaurants of all kinds here.

Main St., Park City, Utah

Expect to spend $20 for a meal that you can get for $10 at someplace reasonable. This rule applies even for the bar food, where a quesadilla or individual-sized pizza will run you $18, plus tax and tip.

Your best bet is to stock up on healthy snacks at the local supermarket. Cooking is also a decent option if you have the time, which you probably won’t.

The person sitting next to you on the bus might be a filmmaker – As evidenced by the large number of audio blogs I was able to record with people in the industry, filmmakers put on their pants the same way we do. Many of them also ride the bus the same way we do.

This can be an advantage or a disadvantage. It can lead to some incredibly awkward moments, as evidenced by one of our colleagues totally trashing a film when the directors were sitting right behind us. But it can also lead to a nice, impromptu chat in a bar with the awesome director of the well-received Blue Valentine:

Movie critics are nice to each other in person – If you follow a bunch of us movie bloggers on Twitter for more than a few hours, you may or may not bear witness to a war of words break out over who published an advertorial or who stole another person’s exclusive or who plagiarized press materials.

Here is a photo of @screenrant, dressed to kill

Despite this apparent animosity, I found that movie critics are actually awesome to hang out with! Hilarious, intelligent, and full of witty banter, everyone tends to put their online hand-wringing behind them when they meet offline. My favorite moments at Sundance were undoubtedly those spent with webmasters and writers from other sites, and arguing with them about the merits (or lack thereof) of a film we’d just seen. (Above and below, photos of Vic Holtreman from Screenrant and Alex Billington from Firstshowing)

Here is @firstshowing blogging in the kitchen because if he steps on the carpet I will kill his ass

If you write a review, it’s very possible the director of that film will read it – It’s a constant balancing act at Sundance, deciding whether to see a movie that no one’s ever seen before or whether to spend that time doing an interview or writing a review. Reviews themselves are a difficult beast to handle; typically a reviewer might have days to craft one, but at Sundance, you might only have a few hours.

This pressure is intensified due to the fact that if you write a review, the film’s director might actually read it (in fact, we were told that the director of Lucky actually viewed our video review, embedded below)! Thus, I almost feel an obligation to produce something that’s at least worthy of a director’s artistic endeavor. In any case, Sundance demands your best at all times, whether as a viewer or as a writer.

Lots of good movies, few (if any) great ones – While I enjoyed a lot of films at Sundance 2010, there were also many that left me disappointed (e.g. The Extra Man, The Perfect Host). Overall, it was a Sundance of many good movies, and few great ones. Certainly there were only a handful that I can see making the transition to mainstream audiences. I heard Peter Sciretta occasionally lamenting the lack of a Little Miss Sunshine this year, a small movie that had the potential to make it big. Sadly, I’m forced to agree.

The ticketing system is kind of broken – There are public screenings, and then there are press screenings. Public screenings require tickets, press screenings require a press pass. Press members get two free tickets to public screenings per day. If you don’t show up early enough to press screenings, you might not get in, and if you don’t show up to public screenings early enough, you might not get in, even if you have a ticket. Basically, you are not guaranteed a seat at any screening, even if you have a ticket or if you are press.

That in and of itself is pretty straightforward, but what introduces complexity into this equation is the fact that a) “Early enough” can mean different things for different movies, and this can be very difficult to gauge, especially since no one has seen these movies before, and few people have heard about any of them, and b) The travel time between theaters using the Park City buses can be anywhere between 15-45 minutes, and that’s IF the shuttles are running on time (which on more than one occasion, they didn’t). This can make potentially make Sundance very unpredictable, in terms of what movies you might actually get to see (Below, the massive waitlist line for the massively popular Catfish).

The waitlist line for "Catfish" is absolutely insane. I haven't yet seen this much buzz for a documentary

What ends up happening is a lot of filmmakers and press end up not getting in to see movies they wanted to see. I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this issue, but perhaps some sort of prioritization can be introduced into the system somehow? Just a random thought, as this was not a significant problem at all.

Public screenings and their Q&As are transcendent – Sitting in a theater with 500 or 1,000 people and being one of the first people to ever see a certain film is already a breathtaking experience. But for most of the public screenings, the director and actors will actually take to the stage after the movie is over and answer questions from the audience. I’ve been to Q&As before, so it’s not a particularly new thing for me, but what makes Sundance stand out is the fact the director/actors/crew are there for virtually EVERY screening. It makes you feel like even though these movies might one day make it huge, the environment in which they were created and screened is a small and nurturing one. The director on stage might one day make the next Spider-Man movie, but for half an hour, he’s taking questions from anyone in the audience who has one.

It’s a true testament to the idea that many great directors get their big break in a small theater, and having the privilege of being a part of that is nothing short of incredible.

Q&A at the Eccles Theater, #sundance 2010

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