After last year’s canceled private festival, the Sundance Film Festival is back to normal for the first time since the pandemic in 2020. While most films are available to watch online in the days following their premiere, the usual mix of moviegoers, industry professionals and press took over Park City on opening night on January 19.
“Long time no see,” shouted one delighted festival-goer to another while waiting to enter Eccles, one of Sundance’s main hubs. Sundance seems to have an interest in getting things back to “normal,” picking up where it left off more than two years and two virtual iterations ago.
Unfortunately, Covid was still the talk of the town, as participants gossiped about winter illnesses that had passed through their friend groups back home, as well as lamented the recent rise in cases of the new COVID-19 subvariant, XBB.1.5.
It appears that there was a 50/50 mix of masked and unmasked participants and volunteers in public spaces like the festival headquarters at the Sheraton Park City.
“Are we wearing masks? I guess I’ll put mine on so I don’t look like an ass,” quipped a confused participant to a friend while waiting in line for a pass.
Meanwhile, some festival goers displayed truly unique COVID protection solutions, with three seen wearing headgear resembling a mini-hazmat suit, creating a uniquely dystopian moment. Live Le Cinema!
Among the opening night’s biggest headlines were “The Pod Generation,” a sci-fi drama starring Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor; “Sometimes I Think About Dying” starring The Daisy Ridley; Indigo Girls documentary “It’s Only Life After All”; Eugenio Derbez car “Radical”; and a pair of midnight horror movies, “Run Rabbit Run” and “Birth/Rebirth.”
Sundance also made news Thursday, with the surprise announcement that Doug Liman, director of the action epic “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” has made his first documentary, “Justice.” The film will examine the sexual assault allegations that nearly derailed Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. It will appear on Friday.
The Sundance comeback is markedly different from the one that unfolded in 2020, just months before much of the world went into lockdown and the movie business ground to a standstill. Some studio executives decided not to trek up the mountain, preferring to screen things from the comfort of home. This frustrates sales agents, who believe their chances of sparking a bidding war are diminished without the excitement that comes from a packed premiere. And some stars chose not to attend, worried that they might get Covid and disrupt the shooting schedule.
Festival organizers at the screening of “Radical” portrayed the new festival, which straddles both the digital and physical worlds, as an exciting new development.
“Even if you find yourself far from Park City, you’re part of an exciting evolution of the Sundance vision,” Robert Redford, the festival’s founder, tunes in a sizzle reel before the movie. “We’re all here…to celebrate the most innovative storytellers of this generation.”
Joanna Vicente, CEO of the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit behind the festival, echoed Redford’s words, while also praising the beauty of coming together.
“There’s nothing like being here personally with all of you,” he said shortly before “Radical” was released. “It’s tempting to say we’re back together, back to the way things were, but the truth is the world has changed. Our industry is at an inflection point and we cannot go back to where we were before. We can only move forward…we must learn and evolve and it all starts here today.”
Eugene Hernandez, who, like Vicente, is a newcomer to Sundance leadership, also argued that Sundance is embracing change.
“Sundance is always looking forward, and we have a lot to look forward to this week and into the future,” he said to loud applause.
For groups, participants were eager to get back to imbibe on the mountain. The “Sometimes I Think About Dying” cast party was a hit before the festival began, and Indiewire’s annual chili party was filled with industry people and members of the Fourth Estate. The restaurant, where reservations are harder to come by than scoring a table at the Polo Bar, was sparsely populated. Even those who couldn’t call ahead, it seems, were able to eat on opening night.
Additional reporting from Owen Gleiberman, Zack Sharf, Rebecca Rubin, Peter Debruge and Matt Donnelly.