Sundance Film Festival Releases & Adjusts Its Pandemic Plan


A still from the short film “BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop,” which will premiere at Sundance in Jan. 2021. (Courtesy Brandon Hoeg)

By Cade Anderson, Arts Writer


As COVID-19 vaccines start to roll out, a new year begins and the Earth spins closer and closer to spring, we have cause for optimism. But the nights are still long — unemployment and homelessness are high and the U.S. recently eclipsed a once-unimaginable coronavirus death toll of 350,000. Amongst these health crises, the pandemic’s impact on the film industry in particular is not the highest priority, but it is critical nonetheless. Taking in new art and discussing it with others is a human health requirement in and of itself. 

As one of Utah’s most cherished and internationally renowned cultural events, the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City has been tasked with safely offering global independent film premieres, even as COVID-19 cases steadily increase across the United States. While pandemic safety has been paramount in restructuring the festival, “We also recognize the urgency of supporting independent storytellers at a time of great upheaval in the film and media fields,” said Keri Putnam, the executive director of Sundance Institute. “We’re proud this edition of the Festival is fiercely independent and will reach people everywhere.” 

Sundance’s New Online Format

“There is no Sundance without our community… we’ve forged a new collective vision: one that honors the spirit and tradition of these invigorating yearly gatherings in Utah, while making room for imaginative new possibilities in a new online format,” said actor and Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford. From Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, all 2021 Sundance films will be available in the U.S. for digital streaming, either live, on-demand or both. Many screenings will also feature online Q&As with directors. 

In-person satellite screenings will also be taking place at drive-ins and independent theaters across the country — a map of which can be viewed here — but Utah is not on the list. The Ray in Park City had previously been slated as Utah’s only in-person Sundance venue, and it was planned to seat 25–50 out of its normal 500+ capacity. However, in light of Utah’s holiday spike in COVID-19 cases, Sundance organizers made the call on Dec. 30, 2020, to cancel this last in-person viewing option. The move is commendable, as Sundance typically draws in tourists from all over the world into large gatherings. But it also marks the first time in nearly four decades that the festival won’t be stopping traffic in Park City. This change is not only a blow to moviegoer morale, but it also spells economic trouble for the local businesses in the area that rely upon the festival’s boom in commercial activity. 

To adapt to a Sundance season less predictable than any in the past, the 2021 festival is offering a new variety of ticket options. Movie-goers can purchase a single film ticket for $15, an “Explorer Pass” with access to non-feature length content like short films and interactive animations for $25, a single day pass for $75, or an all-inclusive “Festival Pass” for $350.

Anticipated Premieres

Since its inception, Sundance has been known to premiere dazzling and critically acclaimed independent films before the rest of the world sees them. “Hereditary,” “Shirkers” and “The Farewell” are just a handful of favorites of mine that have premiered at Sundance in recent years, which I later saw in theaters and through streaming services. Although I have yet to actually attend Sundance, and I’m really disappointed by my inability to finally experience it in-person this month, there is still plenty of new, independent cinema to get excited about.

I can’t wait to see Constance Wu — star of “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Fresh Off the Boat” — lead-in “I Was a Simple Man,” a story of grief and ghost haunting in rural Hawaii. The relevant themes of social collapse and economic crisis in the upcoming Spanish drama “El Planeta” sound relevant to me, while I am intrigued by the dystopian dreamscapes of “Strawberry Mansion.” And there is no shortage of short films that have piqued my interest, including “BJ’s Mobile Gift Shop” and “Yoruga” as well as upcoming avante-garde pieces like “Nightsss.” The list of all 2021 Sundance films and their schedule can be viewed on the festival’s online catalog. Additionally, be sure to check out The Salt Lake Tribune’s article for information on discounts and online events specifically for Utahns.


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