Sundance Film Festival Attendance Nearly Tripled During 2021's Digital-First Event

Feb 17, 2021

A still from Life in a Day 2020 by Kevin Macdonald, an official selection of the Special Events section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Utah residents attending the virtual festival got to view a screening of the film for free.
Credit Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

The organizers of the Sundance Film Festival are proud that they were able to put on a successful online event, and were able to expose new artists and their work to viewers in all 50 U.S. states and in 120 countries.


Betsy Wallace, the CFO and Managing Director of the Sundance Institute, talked to KPCW about the seven-day, Park City-less 2021 edition of the festival. 


Although the event included 20 cities with live events around the country, Sundance was entirely online in Utah – unfortunately coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the film festival coming to Park City.


They knew well in advance they had to plan for a digital festival. She said they were nervous up to the moment that Festival Director Tabitha Jackson kicked off the virtual opening press conference.


“It was a long nine months, trying to iterate how do you keep the magic of Sundance online, how do you show films, what do you do,” Wallace said. “And it was a long process, and I’ve gotta say, on Jan. 28, when we started with our opening ceremony, there were a lot of held breaths and fingers crossed.”


One of their priorities was servicing and communicating with their attendees.


“It was really just a little bump here or there, as we realized that we would have thousands upon thousands of people coming online,” Wallace said. “And many did not know how to access the platform. And that was really the biggest challenge for us, was customer service, trying to get technicians that would get on the phone with people.”


But ultimately, Wallace said the numbers from the virtual festival were good. Sundance calculated that the attendance rose nearly threefold over what they saw during the 11 days of Sundance 2020 in Park City. Wallace said they recorded over 600,000 total audience views.


She said that outreach to Utah and the local community was still part of the event.


“We had ‘Life in a Day,’ a film that was free to Utahns,” Wallace said. “We had 6800 people sign up for that. We had about 1,500 stay through the Q and A of it. I think we are morphing a little bit and trying to reach broader populations here in Park City, here in Summit County, and working towards that. And then in the summer, we are thinking about the concept of having some kind of two-or-three-day ‘soft event’ in town.”


The Festival’s biggest prize winner, “CODA,” also made news when it was acquired by Apple – rather than an established Hollywood studio – for a record $25 million. Wallace said it’s a sign of the times, as the public has been binging indoors on material and is hungry for more.



“‘CODA’ is a remarkable film,” she said. “So is ‘Summer of Soul.’ There are so many that had been picked up. And I think it just says that the content is something that people want to get into either theaters and/or streaming, because I think people are starved for it, as I know I am.”