Organizers of the Sundance Film Festival went virtual Thursday for the press conference opening the 2021 online edition of the festival.
But they said while the event had to be limited for the COVID-19 pandemic, the spirit and ideals of Sundance haven’t changed.
The Thursday morning press conference was scheduled on Utah’s Mountain Standard Time, like the rest of the festival schedule. Although the three hosts were presenting online, their virtual background was the Egyptian Theatre—the traditional site of the press briefing.
Tabitha Jackson took over the job of Festival Director last January—not knowing she was headed for a year like no other.
“What the pandemic had done was to kind of explode our present reality from then, and we were left with the pieces,” Jackson said. “And the Festival actually is coming from a place of needing to completely reimagine and take the pieces that we know are part of our essence, and build them into something different to meet the moment.”
Producing Director Gina Duncan said the past year was like flying a plane while you’re building it. But Sundance Institute Director Keri Putnam said that, fortunately, they had ten months to learn from other film festivals going through the pandemic.
Jackson said they were apprehensive about how many submissions they would see during the Covid year, but their numbers were just slightly down, mainly in U.S. films and mainly in narrative features. She said there was actually an uptick in non-US documentaries.
And artists responded to the challenge.
“Because artists are so creative and they make art by any means necessary, we also got films that were made in Covid, and that’s reflected either in the subject matter, or in the form—distanced, distanced casting and setting,” she said. “And it’s been interesting for us to be at one of the first showcases, if not the first showcase for the creativity that came through a pandemic or is being made in the midst of it.”
The 2021 Sundance FIlm Festival is almost entirely online. Sundance has 28 satellite locations in 24 states and territories and organizers decided, for health and safety reasons, to drop the Ray in Park City as a live location.
The films are free, though attendees won’t be able to chat with people afterward, on the streets or shuttle buses, about the films they’ve seen.
However, Jackson said they are trying to recreate that energy in part with a program called Film Party.
“You go over to the New Frontier platform, which is very easy to do,” she said. “And if you go to Film Party, each feature film that is premiering, after the Q and A, you can go there in your avatar and talk to people about that film—I mean literally talk to them, hear them, see them in your avatar. You go into a special little lounge to talk about that specific one. So making sure that conversation, that discourse around the work and that connection, of audience to audience, and the artist’s gonna be there too, audience to artist. Fingers crossed, but I think it’s gonna work.”
During the press conference, the hosts took questions about how the Festival continues to support diversity; how they are guarding their online films against piracy; and how a film’s prospects for acquisition look at a digital festival.
In addition, Sean Means from the Salt Lake Tribune asked what elements they might take from Sundance Online and implement in future festivals.
“The possibilities of reach and access and participation to a bigger audience, that I want to carry through in whatever way seems appropriate,” Jackson responded. “We’re always going to have too many people to fit into Park City. We’re always going to have people who simply can’t either financially or physically or geographically make it to Park City. So this additional dimension, I think, is really exciting. But we haven’t started the Festival yet. And so what I want us to be able to do is to remain open and notice the possibilities and opportunities that present themselves, and also notice the things that we tried, because we wanted to try them, but they didn’t work.”
Finally, Keri Putnam said she hopes the Sundance community can meet in person for 2022.
“I’ll speak for myself. I can’t wait to be back together, in a collective experience, and back in Utah, back in Park City."