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Sundance Institute's Betsy Wallace discusses canceling in-person festival, pivoting to virtual

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Sundance Institute

Sundance Institute Managing Director Betsy Wallace said Thursday the team made the difficult decision to cancel the in-person 2022 festival after extensive discussions with county officials about the current COVID surge.

Wallace said the omicron-driven surge in COVID cases in Utah was forecasted to peak on Jan 24. That would have been the first Sunday of Sundance – the biggest tourism period of the year for Summit County.

“It really became clear over the holidays, and specifically over the last days that the omicron variant, and it's an anticipated levels of high transmission rate is driving positive cases exponentially," Wallace said. "And when talking with Dr. Phil, and others over at the health department in Summit County, it became clear that they're forecasting the peak of the variant to peak out on, wonderfully, January 24, which is the Sunday of our first four days.”

The Summit County Health Department confirmed that it has estimated a peak point in the surge between the second and third week of January based on what has occurred in South Africa.

Omicron’s timing in Utah will deal an economic blow to Summit County on multiple fronts. The loss of more than 100,000 visitors will also have a trickle-down effect on businesses of all sizes as reservations are canceled for lodging. Bars, restaurants and shops also must say goodbye to their mot lucrative time of year.

Wallace highlighted that as a non-profit, the Sundance Film Festival is the institute’s largest fund-raising event of the year. Cancellation will hurt beyond just the disappointment of filmmakers and the broader artistic community.

But she said Sundance has done virtual before, and will do so again, with plenty of infrastructure honed from last year.

“It was sad but it was also the right thing to do, so we're moving forward fortunately we have built a dynamic platform to connect our community both in person and online.”

Wallace said that even though this is only the second time Sundance will be all-virtual, it’s already got an impressive track record for the format.

“If you think back, you know those films that screened last year we were in 50 states across all the US territories, but we had "Coda." We had "Summer of Soul," also known as "When the revolution could not be televised." We had "Passing." And many more films that really created a spark of dialogue, and many of them are up for consideration for our awards. So we're excited about that. For us, it's really about the artists. We're trying very hard to get through the online piece, make it successful for everybody, and then work through where we're going to be in financially how that's going to look.”

With the festival designed to be hybrid, part of the work is already done. Increased Broadband was already set up and will remain in place for anyone in the area who wants to watch the movies.

The Sundance web site will be down over the coming weekend while the Institute works with passholders to convert in-person tickets to virtual tickets. Individual ticket sales will still be available and more details will come next week as the festival pivots.

Wallace said that after the news broke, she received about 100 texts from people offer condolences while simultaneously thanking her for the decision.