The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sundance is going online, for the second year in a row. Here’s what’s great about that.

Old Main Street in Park City, Utah, where filmgoers would have gathered for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs Jan. 20-30. The festival has gone virtual because of a rise in coronavirus cases. (George Frey/Getty Images)

There’s pivoting, and then there’s whiplash.

A couple of weeks ago, the 38th annual Sundance Film Festival was ready to launch on Jan. 20 as a nine-day hybrid event, welcoming filmmakers and audiences back to Park City, Utah, for the first time in two years while also making films available online to movie lovers around the world. For those planning to attend in person, it promised to be a party and a reunion — a happy return to standing in snowy admission lines, swapping buzz on shuttle buses and finding the movie that might change your life.

On Jan. 5, however, amid increasing concerns about the rapidly spreading omicron variant, a last-minute decision was made to cancel the physical event and, as in 2021, go fully virtual. It can’t be easy slamming the brakes on a festival that in the recent past has brought more than 120,000 filmgoers to a small ski-resort town in the Wasatch Mountains, and patrons who bought the $750 festival package — which provides a set number of tickets for features, plus other films — have been crying foul since learning that no refunds would be forthcoming. (The full festival pass offered in 2021 was $350.)

In an email to The Post on Thursday, a Sundance spokesperson said of the current ticket policy, “We rely heavily on the festival to continue our mission-centered work. This is one of the reasons why our hybrid products are set up as non-refundable. We need to be able to continue to champion the essential storytellers of this generation.”

Amid filmmakers, festival­goers, publicists and volunteers canceling their travel plans, and Park City’s hospitality industry kissing goodbye to some $80 million in revenue, the Sundance staff has had to turn this legendary indie-movie battleship around within the space of 15 days. Only one film to date has backed out of its Sundance berth: “Final Cut,” a zombie movie about zombies attacking a zombie movie that director Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”) has said he wanted to premiere before a live audience.

“The week has been full of craziness,” says festival director Tabitha Jackson. “Putting on the Sundance Film Festival in any year is trying to make the impossible possible, and this was just another iteration of that. [The move to an all-virtual festival] came with disappointment, but we also need to respect the infrastructure of Park City and where we are in this pandemic.”

A British-born filmmaker and film programmer, Jackson, 51, was tapped as the festival’s director in 2020, replacing the much-loved Park City veteran John Cooper; she is only the third person to lead the storied event, as well as the first woman, person of color and person born outside the United States. But while last year’s Sundance, Jackson’s first in the driver’s seat, was the first that didn’t happen in a physical space, she had ideas about taking the festival online even before covid-19 reared its viral head.

“It was a twinkle in my eye, and I thought, this is probably going to be a five- or 10-year plan to do this,” says Jackson. “But the pandemic both accelerated things at some considerable speed and made things that weren’t previously conceivable necessary.”

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It helps that Sundance 2021 worked a lot of bugs out of its virtual screening software. Sundance 2022 will make more than 80 feature films available through its streaming platform at, along with Zoom Q&As and other live events. While that number is lower than the average 120 titles in pre-pandemic years, it’s about 10 more than the 2021 festival and, more important, it strikes a balance that Jackson feels offers choice without becoming overwhelming. Here’s her pitch: “After the last two years, after you’ve read all your Proust and you’ve made all your sourdough starters and you’ve finished watching the entire Internet, an infusion of new work by makers you haven’t heard of, titles you don’t know, casts yet to be discovered, is an incredibly exciting and necessary injection into the culture.”

Even the New Frontiers section, traditionally devoted to virtual reality, performance art and experimental technologies, will be available online via a “spaceship” in which festivalgoers’ avatars will interact with each other and the shows. Jackson has a philosophy about all of this, and it’s not so much forward-thinking as of-the-moment.

“I try not to use the word ‘virtual,’ ” she says. “One of the things I learned last year was that gathering together at a moment in time — even if it’s not a moment in place — brings with it an energy, a response to the work, a response to each other, which are real and powerful.” She cites a Zoom Q&A after last year’s screening of the intense school-shooting drama “Mass,” where the director and actor were in tears. “It was just an incredible electric moment. There was nothing virtual about that.”

Then, too, there’s something to be said for bringing Sundance down from the mountains to the people who can’t afford to skip work for a week to fly to Utah. For the second year, the festival has arranged to simulcast some films at art house “satellite screens” in such cities as Seattle, San Diego, Baltimore and Winston-Salem, which, along with at-home streaming, will lead to what Jackson describes as “a more democratic and authentic representation of audiences.” The challenge will be retaining and fine-tuning this mix in years to come, after Sundance returns to its physical footprint. “Festivals are all about balance,” says Jackson. “So how do we balance the in-person with the online, the IRL with the URL?”

At its core, of course, Sundance is about the movies and the people who make them, as well as the thrill of discovery for critics and paying audiences alike. Launched in 1978 in Salt Lake City as the Utah/US Film Festival, Sundance was the brainchild of actor Robert Redford; the head of his production company, Sterling Van Wagenen; and the Utah Film Commission. The event moved to Park City in 1981 and was taken over by Redford’s Sundance Institute in 1984. The following year’s lineup arguably serves as the starting gun for the American independent film movement, with debut or breakthrough films from the Coen brothers (“Blood Simple”), Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”), Wim Wenders (“Paris, Texas”) and Sally Potter (“The Gold Diggers”).

In the following two decades, as Redford continued to serve as the public face of Sundance while leaving the day-to-day management to festival director Geoffrey Gilmore (now running the Tribeca Film Festival), Sundance helped radically remake the landscape of the film industry by offering an alternative to Hollywood studio fare and giving voice to an increasingly diverse multiplicity of voices. It’s the festival that brought us “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” in 1989, “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992, “Little Miss Sunshine” in 2006 and “Summer of Soul” in 2021, and that helped launch the careers of (just to name a few) Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater (“Slacker”), Darren Aronofsky (“Pi”), Lisa Cholodenko (“High Art”), Lee Daniels (“Precious”), Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”), Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) and Lee Isaac Chung (“Minari”). Independent cinema had always existed in the United States, but with Sundance, it became a market force and a cultural zeitgeist that continues to this day. (Redford, who announced his retirement from acting with 2018’s “The Old Man and the Gun,” has ceased any active involvement with the festival, saying in a 2020 interview, “It’s gotten so big; it’s beyond my control.”)

In recent years, as the major studios have retreated into the commercial safe harbor of franchise filmmaking, festivals like Sundance, Telluride and Toronto have become critical points on the indie-film rollout calendar, showcases for an entire alternate ecosystem of film distribution. Has Sundance become too much of a marketplace? “We do need to pay attention to the sales aspect of the festival,” acknowledges Jackson. “We do not need to chase it or program to it. When a film makes a sale [here], it indicates that the industry thinks that this work can connect with audiences. Ultimately, that’s where the power comes from in the work — when it connects, when it resonates, when it creates change.”

And the work continues to come. Sundance programmers were concerned this year about a coronavirus-related drop-off in film submissions that never happened. Says Jackson: “We had no right to expect that anybody would have completed their work during a pandemic and so it was the old cliche: Would it be feast or famine? This year was an absolute feast, and we had to leave a huge amount of films, great films, on the table, which is good news for the culture and other festivals.”

She points to three movies as examples of the diversity and adventurousness of this year’s Sundance. “Nanny,” a drama about a Senegalese caregiver in New York City, “is a psychological thriller, but [director Nikyatu Jusu is] also grappling with very real social issues of labor rights, the interactions between different classes, different ethnicities, privileged children.” Mariama Diallo’s “Master” is a drama about Black students on a White campus that tips into supernatural territory. And “there’s a comedy called ‘Emergency,’ which is a fantastic rip-roaring ride wrestling with some of the most difficult things to talk about at the moment — young men of color being put in situations that could be perceived as absolutely egregious for them or by them and how these societal roles play out.”

It’s notable that more movies than usual this year fall into genres of suspense, comedy, thriller and horror. In “Dual,” a young woman (Karen Gillan) does battle with her own clone; in “You Won’t Be Alone,” Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) plays a 19th-century witch who takes over the body of a peasant. “Something in the Dirt,” from cult filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, finds the paranormal in a Los Angeles apartment building. “Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul” is a broad farce set in a Southern Baptist megachurch. At the same time, some Sundance entries deal with the actual past in ways that comment presciently on the actual present: There are two films, a documentary and a star-studded drama, about the Janes, the anonymous women in 1960s Chicago who ran an underground railroad for then-illegal abortions.

Jackson feels this isn’t by accident. “It does, on many days, feel that we’re living in a horror film. I also think that with genre work, if you are a woman, if you are a filmmaker of color, genre can often be a good way of getting in and getting the funding. Even if you’re not a known name or have a known track record, you have more chance of getting someone to take a bet on you because you might be the next ‘Get Out.’ ”

Even so, the movies of Sundance 2022 seem to have an unusually high number of ghosts in them — a woman visited by the shade of her mother in Chile’s “The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future,” for instance, or an enslaved person escaping from a plantation and surfacing in 1973 America in “Alice.” “There are a lot of ghosts and there’s a lot of loss,” agrees Jackson. “I think filmmakers have been grappling with loss and grief, and this [festival] is a spectrum of the ways in which they’re doing it.

“This is absolutely a program of its moment.”