Surviving Sundance: Practical Tips
Heading to Sundance this week? Here's how to make the most of your time in the mountains.
Last year at Sundance, we spoke with Jendra Jarnagin, a cinematographer who has been attending the festival for over ten years, and who attributes much of her career success to this week in Utah. I highly suggest you read that article, How to Make Sundance Work For You: A DP's Perspective. Here, we’ll build off those thoughts, and go into some more practical details for navigating the snowy fete once you've decided to attend.
The following advice is based on Jarnagin’s recommendations, sprinkled in with some thoughts of my own. I am a DP who has been attending Sundance for about ten years as well, and while I don’t attribute much of my career success to the festival, I always have a fantastic time, and meet great people. This year I am taking my Sundance prep more seriously so I, too, will be following this advice and learning from my fellow pros.
Like a film, Sundance is made in pre-production.
Jarnagin stresses that like a film, Sundance is made in pre-production. She often puts 100 hours into preparing for the festival. That said, plenty of people wing it or don’t have any connections and just show up and have an amazing time. Park City is flush with events this week—especially opening weekend. Industry happy hours, lounges, panels, and house parties abound. Reach out to organizations, vendors, and filmmaker friends and say that you will be attending the festival, and ask if they have any events it would make sense to invite you to.
Personally, I have found that politely asking (and being fine with a no answer) has worked well. And be generous—share your knowledge of an open RSVP event, send things along to friends, and they will tend to think of you in return.
Do you have your business cards ready? If not, get that overnight delivery going. We suggest using business cards over putting someone directly in your phone, as you will likely meet so many people, you may not remember a phone entry two days later. Each night I try to scribble on the back of the cards I have been given that day: what the person is interested in, and what might make sense to follow up about.
The first half of the festival is flush with events while the second half calms down, becoming less of a circus and more about seeing films and spending quality time with friends old and new.
Jarnagin likes to arrive on Thursday, the first day of the festival— but as flights are pricier on that day, you could also fly in on Wednesday for hundreds less, and book a cheap airport hotel Wednesday night. You take a shuttle in from the airport—why not book ahead?If a few of you throw in together, a taxi or carsharing service can end up being cheaper than the shuttles. These services will take you to your address in Park City.
When it comes time to return to the airport, you might not want to book far ahead as you may find a ride with a [new!] friend. That said, should there be a snowstorm come the time of your departure, shuttles may stop for safety and the cost of car services may surge, so give this a think a few days before you intend to be wings or wheels up.
On Thursday, Jarnagin settles in: unpacks, gets a lay of the land, and picks up groceries and tickets.
While panels and lounges will start on that first Friday, Thursday’s opening night party is only for Sundance Institute folks and filmmakers with films in the festival.
Saturday night on Main Street is off the (snow) chain.
The bananas weekend
The first Fri / Sat / Sun is the big party weekend. The most bang for your networking buck will be between Friday and Monday. Saturday night on Main Street is off the (snow) chain. Depending on your point of view, that may mean aiming to avoid Main Street.
Monday and Tuesday there will still be many industry events. The difference between Tuesday and Wednesday is enormous: it calms down! That may be when you start attending movies, and stopping by lounges or talks you haven’t yet had the opportunity to visit. In Jarnagin’s experience, the relationships she’s developed during the second half of the festival have been stronger, as there is less of a whirlwind and more opportunities for quality time with folks.
Clothing: mountain chic
It’s cold! Wear layers! Most folks don’t dress super fancy. Jarnagin reflects that she dresses down a bit while at Sundance: “If I dress like a night out in NYC, people might not take me seriously as a filmmaker.” She brings along a day bag with extra clothes in it for the evening: leg warmers, an extra scarf. You will likely be spending time in outdoor lines, and it gets cold.
Consider hand warmers, toe warmers, long underwear. And waterproof boots are a must. I’ll wear boots the entire time. Jarnagin suggests two pairs of boots in case one gets wet; she opts for one super warm pair and one waterproof pair.
Most events are on or close to Main Street. RSVPing to an event often doesn’t guarantee entry. There are capacity limitations to spaces that are enforced. If you really want to go to Party X starting at 6PM, maybe get there a half hour early—or be okay with not being able to get in. If there’s a long line when you arrive, considering cutting your losses and moving on. Saying, “Oh I’m on the list,” probably doesn’t help, as likely so is everyone else.
Sundance is an extremely open environment. It’s acceptable to reach out and say “Hey I’m going to Sundance, do you have any events I can come to?” “Do you know anyone I should meet?” “When you’re free, let’s meet up at a lounge.” Many events are invite only; you can ask for an invite. Many RSVPs are first come, first served, while others are more focused on their core market and hence more selective. Ask friends if they know of neat things or have RSVP links. Often that may be enough, or if not, it is a foot in the door, and a follow-up email may confirm that you are on the list. If you do get party invites, RSVP quickly; things fill up!
Who is having events, you ask? Vendors of camera gear, distributors, production houses, affinity groups, agencies, channels, universities—and filmmakers! You could look up a list of last year’s parties to get an idea. Or ask your friends. Different sponsors will have different panels during the day. Vendors will have lounges demonstrating products, featuring talks—and, almost as importantly—coffee. “Nearly every state film commission has an event,” Jarnagin says. “I go to the panels during the day to meet people and find out what is going on in the industry.”
If you don’t have a credential to attend a panel at the Filmmaker Lodge but you know a panelist, you could request going as their guest.
Note: end times are legit. The party will stop when it says it will, as the venue is frequently turning over for another event.
While planning ahead helps loads, there are many things you’ll just hear about there. Spontaneity abounds; pack a swimsuit for a late night condo hot tub party. Don’t worry about not having a full calendar before you get there. Once on the ground, ask around.
Stay hydrated x 10.
Food and drink
There are open bars everywhere: you may never have to spend money on alcohol.
That being said, consider your normal tolerance for alcohol. Now half it, and consider sticking with that. Altitude and dehydration will shift your tolerance level, plus you may be looking at a week of drinking…and you want to remember all these neat people you are meeting. On a related note, stay hydrated x 10.
There’s a lot of finger food at events. That said, depending on that is a gamble. If you have food limitations or allergies or are on a budget, it may be wise to bring along snacks. Even if you don't have these requirements, it's wise to bring along snacks—power bars, sandwiches, and hard-boiled eggs—anyway. There are basically no convenience stores, it can be hard to just duck into a restaurant on swamped Main Street, and you won’t likely get in and out in a hurry. Jarnagin recommends the basement of Altitude (formerly Bandit’s) and the Main Street Pizza and Noodle space as relatively quick and enjoyable places to grab a bite, but snacks will allow you to stay on the go. Note that most local restaurants also raise their normal menu prices during the festival.
There is a grocery store, Fresh Market, off of the shuttle bus route, near the Park Avenue Theatre and Holiday Cinemas. Consider stocking up on breakfast and portable food.
Park City is a very small town and parking is a hard to find. Don’t bring a car, or if you are driving out to Park City, try to find a place to stash the car; parking in town will be time-consuming, difficult, and potentially expensive.
Get to know the shuttle bus system. There are city buses and Sundance buses that run until around midnight—check the specifics—and all of them are free. Buses are the way to go; there are also local taxi services and Lyft but prices tend to surge during Sundance. Last year, during some tough snowstorms, there were reports of $200+ charges for local carsharing app rides.
If you are considering going skiing, know that skiing while exhausted can lead to injuries: your reflexes and reaction times may be slower, and your stamina weaker. The thinner air at this altitude takes a toll on your stamina, even when just walking up and down the hill on Main Street: don’t worry, you are not in as bad shape as you think you are. Start on easier slopes than you are used to. With that in mind, the mountains are mostly empty during the festival, so some people come just to beat the crowds.
Oh, movies! Flying ticketless
If you have tickets to movies ahead of time, great. If you are going into the week without tickets, be not afraid. You don’t need a ticket package to make the movies. You’ll just have to hustle a bit more. While it’s nice to have some individual tickets ahead of time, I have also had good luck with waitlisting films. There is a Sundance app to use so you don’t have to go to the theatre in person until you learn your waitlist number. Be savvy: a theatre with more seating will yield more folks gaining entry off the waitlist. An 8:30 AM screening is less likely to fill up than a 3 PM screening. Here are some specifics to keep in mind:
- Some tickets are released each day at the box office. Also, other attendees often have tickets they can’t use: ask around.
- Traveling between theatres takes time, so you may choose what you want to see and/or waitlist based on what movies are playing at one particular theatre, and when they are screening. Later in the week as things slow down, Jarnagin may stay at one theatre for much of the day.
- While many of the bigger name movies will get released, Sundance is a great opportunity to see specialty documentaries, short films, and foreign films. Watching a film you know nothing about may lead you to seeing something you greatly enjoy.
- If you park yourself at one theatre, pick something that has multiple screens or is close to other options (Redstone boosts numerous screens for Sundance films).
- You must be early to screenings even if you have a ticket, or your ticket will be given away to folks on the waitlist. You may need cash if you do get a ticket off the waitlist.
- Be aware some screenings are in Salt Lake City, which is a 45 minute drive away if you’re lucky. When you are buying a ticket or waitlist, make sure you know where the theatre is.
Take care of yourself! There will be lots of humans and hand-shaking and stressed immune systems. Do you want to prioritize sleep so you can go the distance? Many years a stomach bug makes the rounds. Maybe eat with your left hand, and wash your hands often. Stock up on some Vitamin-C or other immune boosters when you do your grocery run.
Small picture: think about the little things you want to bring along, such as an extra battery for your cell phone, a reusable water bottle and coffee mug, business cards, and hand warmers.
Big picture: if you are looking to participate in the swirl of events, be proactive about reaching out to folks, and be thoughtful and generous in sharing information, both beforehand and when you are in the mix. If you are looking to see some movies (!), make it happen. Take care of yourself. Enjoy yourself and stay warm!