The 2021 Sundance Film Festival kicked off with a Day One Press Welcome, where No Film School tuned in to find out what’s new and different this year. With the fest being virtual, there’s hardly anything about the festival that’s not new.

“The pandemic exploded our present reality,” described festival director Tabitha Jackson to the virtual room of film journalists. “We took the pieces that we were left with, took the pieces that were part of our essence, and built them into something to meet the moment.”

Sff2021_day_one_press_welcome_tabitha_jackson_keri_putnam_gina_duncanStill from the virtual Day One Press Welcome with Gina Duncan, Tabitha Jackson, and Keri PutnamCredit: Sundance

Jackson signed on as the first female director of the Sundance Film Festival last February. Ah, early 2020. What a sweet time before the pandemic became a full-blown disaster. 

Here are some of the biggest ways in which Sundance has tried to meet the challenges of the year's festival head-on.

How Sundance is preserving the Festival experience by harnessing "energy"

How do you keep the “buzz” of the buzzy festival when going virtual? For Jackson, the answer was translated by asking the filmmakers.

“A festival is about energy,” she explained. “How do we preserve the energy around the work, the artist, and experience? The artists are our North star. Plus audiences and industry that carries films from here.”

After hearing from filmmakers and the film industry that normally champions their work at the festival, these were the moments designed to keep the connection:

Make sure every film has a live Q&A

Like we mentioned in our Sundance 2021 curtain-raiser, make sure you start the premiere on time to participate!

Make sure the film still has anticipation

“We began to realize over the summer, we are not just filling a void, but could this year afford an opportunity for us to potentially drive a broader impact for artists,” explained Keri Putnam.

The means the premiere is at a particular time, and you have to scramble to get a ticket before it sells out, just like you would at an in-person festival. How many tickets before it sells out? That was worked out with film industry stakeholders.

Shake it up with a gesture of solidarity to arthouse cinemas

By reaching out to independent venues (and “the independent of the independent venues”) partners in 24 states and territories are also acting as proxy Sundance this year.

Gina Duncan described how this in part came from her being tasked to shake things up, and also from the fest-building process being like flying a plane while building it.” The result?

“This year a lot of people are going to have their first Sundance experience,” said Duncan. 

Why submission numbers went down, but only in one category

“What we didn’t know this year was if we were going to get anything,” said Jackson.

It turns out there were still 14,092 submissions. Is that all? But sadly, for American filmmakers, this was not a year of prolific completion.

“To our amazement, our submission numbers were only slightly down than previous years, and only in American submissions, and mostly in American fiction.”

There was an uptick in international documentaries, among others. And the programming team witnessed all kinds of films that in one way or another saw COVID play out, whether in subject matter or in distanced casting and setting.

"[This year] artists were ill, dealing with tragedy, on the frontline of the uprising about racial justice, and they too were victims of this economic crisis."

Sundance 2021 logo

How Sundance is protecting artists (and audiences) from the Internet

The Internet is democratizing, blah, blah, blah. It's also the realm of anonymous assholes, trolls, and movie pirates.

As Jackson explained, all of the festival staff, moderators, and partners have gone through extra training to manage this. “The online environment can be fraught and heightened,” she said. The goal with virtual Sundance? “We don’t have to agree with each other, but we can have a fully realized discourse without it going crazy.”

And as for piracy, Sundance has hired the best security teams in the business to protect their artists.

“Piracy is a reality in the online space, but I do feel we are doing everything we can to mitigate that,” said Putnam.

“We’re working with an incredible digital team and tech team. Our partner is a company called Shift 72 that did many of the other online festivals you’ve seen [in 2020]. They’ve taken care of the player. We’ve built the experience around that player, and we have incredible security. The vendors we’ve hired to police privacy will track individual viewers to their accounts. That will go a long way, and ideally the whole way.”

Can't take part in this year's festivities? Check out the rest of our 2021 Sundance Film Festival coverage here.