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Sundance welcomed back the crowds, but it felt like a rebuilding year

For the first time since 2020, the legendary film festival was held in person. It didn’t seem to be back to full strength, though.

Outside the Egyptian Theatre in Park City, Utah, during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
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PARK CITY, UTAH — The movie theater lines were back, and so were the loud opinions voiced on shuttle buses. The 4 a.m. nights followed by 8:15 a.m. screenings, the hot tubs, the adults sleeping in bunk beds, the whiskey served in regimented Utah alcohol pours of exactly 1.5 ounces. The “brand studios” from companies such as Canada Goose and Chase Sapphire where a select few were given free puffer coats and, on one occasion, congee with sous vide quail eggs. There were blockbuster sales, disappointing non-sales and those awkward moments when you criticize a movie only to find out the director is standing next to you, The bearded men, the women in brimmed hats who are clearly from Los Angeles saying, “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” while cutting in front of people who have been standing in snow for an hour outside at-capacity parties and being very much not sorry at all.

For those of us who’ve been to the Sundance Film Festival going on 10 years or more, this 2023 edition felt familiar and joyous as it returned in person to Utah for the first time since 2020. But at times it also felt like the hollowed-out carcass of festivals past that we were trying to bring back to life. Parties and bars were once again packed, traffic was as bad as ever and directors still got raucous standing ovations. There were, as always, major debuts and hotly anticipated screenings, such as the divisive film adaptation of viral New Yorker story “Cat Person”; Doug Liman’s so-so secret Brett M. Kavanaugh documentary, “Justice”; and A24’s “Past Lives,” from playwright Celine Song, a beautiful tale of childhood friends from Korea that made everyone in my theater cry.

But a combination of freezing temperatures and the festival’s new hybrid model, with 75 percent of the program screening online, created an unmistakable sense that something was missing. And something was. Film publicists reported that they had press and industry screenings with as few as three attendees — for big titles during the busiest part of the fest. “It feels like industry folks stayed home, or left early, and only the party people came,” one publicist remarked.

This year, as soon as the always-frenzied first weekend ended, the city emptied out, far earlier and more dramatically than is typical — a couple of days into an 11-day festival. “I certainly felt a more significant drop-off than there used to be,” said Jeffrey Abramson, a creative strategist who has been coming to Sundance for 29 years. “I know a lot of people who just watched online. There’s the covid factor, and it’s really cold.” But there were benefits, too: Film lovers could actually get into screenings, instead of scrambling for tickets or standing in a wait-list line.

The most tangible difference was that the beloved closing-night party and awards ceremony that usually takes place late Saturday was replaced with a Friday-morning celebration in a small theater inside a shopping center, in a space next to a grocery store. Gone were the petit fours and open bar and light-projected logos for sponsor Stella Artois. Gone were the final after-parties at rental houses, where everyone comes toting excess liquor they can’t take on planes. Many film teams who won had already gone home. A few skipped the awards, fearing they had the coronavirus. But the emotion of the winners who were there was indelible; at least three of them ran into the hallway after their speeches and screamed so loud the entire theater heard and laughed.

Jury member Karim Amer cried when giving the documentary world cinema grand jury prize to “The Eternal Memory,” about a Chilean memory expert who is battling Alzheimer’s. Amer himself spoke about being among the “global creative refugees who find a home in this mountain town.” He’d been a protester in the Arab Spring in 2011, met a producer at Sundance in 2012 and came back the following year with “The Square,” which became the first Egyptian documentary to be nominated for an Oscar.

Documentaries “20 Days in Mariupol,” about the war in Ukraine, and “Beyond Utopia,” which follows a family fleeing from North Korea, won audience awards. “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project,” about the legendary Black poet, won the U.S. documentary grand jury prize. And jury member Jeremy O. Harris cried giving the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize to “A Thousand and One,” about an unhoused single Black mother in New York City who kidnaps her son from foster care so they can live together. Harris had asked specifically whether he could give out the award. “I think of moments and it still wrecks me,” he said. “I walked out of the theater and wept in front of people I barely know.” The first-time director, A.V. Rockwell, is the third Black woman in the festival’s history to win Sundance’s biggest prize, following “Nanny” director Nikyatu Jusu last year and “Clemency” director Chinonye Chukwu in 2019.

In the festival’s earliest moments, there was a sense of giddiness about the return to the way things were. Film critic Tomris Laffly noticed that, during the opening-night screening for “Sometimes I Think About Dying,” a quirky dark comedy starring Daisy Ridley, the audience was practically rolling in the aisles laughing. “It wasn’t that the jokes were particularly that funny,” she said, “but I realized people really miss being at Sundance and they were actually overcompensating for that feeling of being in a theater again.”

That exuberance didn’t exactly translate to the robust acquisitions of pre-pandemic years. Eighty percent of the movies in the program were for sale, programmers said, and as of publication, there had been only a handful of big distribution deals. The first bidding war belonged to “Fair Play,” an R-rated thriller about sex and power at a cutthroat hedge fund that Netflix bought for $20 million. As soon as “Fair Play” sold, its publicists and Netflix canceled The Washington Post’s scheduled interview with star Phoebe Dynevor, of “Bridgerton.” (No need to build any more hype, apparently.) Searchlight pictures plunked down $8 million for “Theater Camp,” a mockumentary about musical theater nerds starring Ben Platt. And Apple TV Plus spent $20 million for the rights to “Flora and Son,” a feel-good story of a single mom in Dublin taking guitar lessons over the internet, from “Once” director John Carney and starring Eve Hewson (Bono’s daughter).

One refrain circulating was that this was a rebuilding year for Sundance. Theatrical distribution for exactly the type of movie the festival celebrates — documentaries and dramas from first-time filmmakers tackling complicated subject matter, without big stars or superhero special effects — has been decimated. Audiences have spent years being trained to stream movies at home.

Robert Redford, 86, the festival’s founder and unofficial mascot, gave a robust voice-over for a short film about the mission of Sundance that ran before each screening, but didn’t attend opening-night events, which was unusual.

The last, true in-person Sundance, at the end of January 2020, was perhaps the pioneer in superspreader events, coming at a time when the coronavirus was barely a concern for most Americans. Film industry folks reported catching what felt like the worst colds of their lives, then bravely powered through their illness to double-kiss many cheeks at the Oscars in early February.

For Sundance 2021, which gave the world eventual Oscar winners “CODA” and “Summer of Soul,” the festival had pivoted to just one theater in Park City and a mini drive-in festival in Los Angeles, then had to cancel both in December because of rising coronavirus rates, settling on about 30 satellite venues across the country, most of which were outdoors. (Comparatively, this year, there were eight venues in Park City, four in Salt Lake City, and one at the Sundance Mountain Resort, a luxury ski destination near Provo.)

The next year’s festival was canceled just two weeks before its expected triumphant return to Park City, during the omicron surge. Filmmakers once again had to deal with their big moments happening for online audiences only. “It was so awkward and insular,” said W. Kamau Bell, about premiering his documentary series “We Need To Talk About Cosby” virtually in 2022. “I was by myself in my office waiting for everyone to watch it, and then at the end I did the Q&A, walked into my house and asked my wife, like, ‘What do the kids want for dinner?’” This year, the writer-director was honored at the opening-night fundraiser gala, alongside other Sundance alums: last year’s winner Jusu, Luca Guadagnino (“Call Me By Your Name”) and “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler, whose first feature, “Fruitvale Station,” won the grand jury prize almost exactly 10 years ago to the day.

Sundance 2021: Even in a world turned upside-down and an all-virtual festival, the movies survived

Also making a strong comeback this year: the crass commercialism that has accompanied the festival over the past decade. It was impossible to go anywhere without being handed a bag of Stacy’s Pita Chips, which had an “activation” site. White Claw, an official festival sponsor, had an overly dramatic black-and-white short film that never failed to elicit laughs when it played right before screenings — and right after an excellent land acknowledgment short asking audience members to “support Indigenous resistance.” Commercialism, though, has every right to run rampant at Sundance: Independent film festivals can’t happen without money.

During the day, at the “Creator’s Lounge” for Stanley — makers of hipster-approved camping mugs and “the official drinkware” of the festival — passersby could get their aura read. (Mine is white, which I’m told is “the rarest color to have in energy.”) By the bar, influencer-comedian Matt Rogers, who hosts the “Las Culturistas” podcast with “Saturday Night Live’s” Bowen Yang, was getting both a cocktail and a coffee right around noon. “I want to be drunk but also awake,” he said. Back in 2019, he’d been a working journalist, interviewing celebrities for Vulture. The festival had been starrier then, he thought; he’d interviewed Jon Hamm and Annette Bening, and run into Blythe Danner on the street. But he was pleased to discover that, as a semifamous person, people just give him things. He went back to the Vulture lounge, this time to get interviewed himself. “They gave me what had to be $5,000 of La Mer products,” he said. “I’m going to put it all over my body. I’m going to bathe in it like Cher.”

By night, everyone danced. The first South Asian Lodge, created by the filmmakers and Sundance alums Shruti Ganguly and Tanya Selvaratnam in collaboration with the nonprofit 1497, became known for its serious panel discussions followed by fun, inclusive bhangra parties featuring DJ Rekha and Zeemuffin, while Sunrise Collective, a new collaboration of Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations, held a Lunar New Year celebration hosted by Daniel Dae Kim. Both were where the community gravitated to mourn the tragic shooting in Monterey Park, Calif.

At the premiere for “Magazine Dreams,” a heavy drama starring Jonathan Majors as an aspiring bodybuilder, held at the Chase Sapphire lounge, partygoers jumped around to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” while wearing various interpretations of Sundance chic: fur hats, leather leggings, fuzzy boots and sweats as formalwear. Group chats were a-flurry with messages about which party was the most “lit”: United Talent Agency, A24, the Latinx House. HBO Documentary Films won points for having an open bar and the only real food many would get to eat over the course of five days, with an opulent spread of oysters, shrimp, sliders, pasta and medium-rare steak.

To experience one of the more ridiculous events of the week, it would cost $60 to get an Uber down a dark highway, where Diplo was spinning for the late-late-night crowd at the pop-up for the nightclub TAO. The night featured a procession of sparklers in honor of Moët & Chandon, an appearance by Jordan Clarkson of the Utah Jazz, an Acura randomly placed inside the club (it’s a festival sponsor), and Diplo dropping a club remix of the “White Lotus” theme song, to which someone shouted, “Well, that’s just pandering!” This, it seemed, was where all the party people lived, at least until 6 a.m. No one seemed to be over the age of 26 or remotely in town to see movies. At one point, Diplo brought out costumed “Yo Gabba Gabba!” characters Muno and Brobee, who bopped around before being led offstage like exhausted boxers who had just finished a fight.

Another sign of the “rebuilding year” vibe was the annual Monday-night party hosted by publicity and film-sales firm Cinetic Media. In prior years, it had been a mid-fest capstone; this time, it felt like the last day of senior year. There wasn’t a celebrity in sight, except for Bell, bless him, leaving stalwart industry players and journalists dominating the attendees. Almost everyone said they’d be taking off on a plane the next day. In a fun twist, the dance floor was filled with people wearing paper masks bearing the faces of directors such as Wes Anderson, John Cameron Mitchell, Bong Joon-ho and Luis Buñuel, a nod to disguises worn in “Kim’s Video,” a doc about a heist to steal a large VHS collection. It can be easy to forget that, in the midst of the parties and the celebrities and the hype, Sundance is also a place where film nerds can commune with their own kind and where careers are born; this is the festival, after all, that debuted “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” “Get Out,” “Heathers” and “Call Me By Your Name.”

Two years ago, writer-director-actor Jarreau Carrillo, who started his “filmmaking journey” in 2006, was shining shoes in Seattle, forced to move home because of the pandemic. Last year, he was packaging for a meal prep service. This weekend, he won the short film directing prize for “The Vacation,” about a Black barbershop owner just trying to get to the beach — filmed for under $50,000. “I got so much reassurance and optimism from being here,” he says. “My friends were like, ‘Oh, you’re going to win an award!’ And I was like, ‘Dude, I already won. Like, I’m in Sundance.’”