Sundance’s wait-list goes high tech
By Sean P. Means
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jan 10 2014 06:21PM
No, Utah doesn’t have a lottery — but we do have the Sundance Film Festival wait list, which can feel like a gamble.
"You spend hours in line for tickets you might not even get," said Kate Murdoch, from Manti and a student at Dixie State University in St. George. "You can’t help but think of what a massive waste of time it could end up being if you don’t get in."
Most do get in. (Last year, Murdoch and her friend wound up in the second row of the premiere of the thriller "Stoker," surrounded by the cast.) But as Sundance has grown over the years, so has the length of time people spend in line — often in tents, sometimes huddled under propane heaters outside.
So this year, Sundance organizers are introducing a high-tech version of the wait-list system — one they hope will keep moviegoers from shivering too much.
"We’re always looking for ways of making the festival more experientially positive," festival director John Cooper said. "I know people never mind doing the wait-list, but there’s got to be another way using technology."
Under the old system, which Sundance has used for years, it worked like this: A moviegoer would get in line two hours before showtime, be given a paper slip with a number representing his or her place in line (called a Q number), leave for awhile, then come back to the theater 30 minutes before the show and hope there are enough empty seats in the theater.
"We get those lines that show up really early," said Jackie Landry, Sundance’s senior manager of theater operations. "We don’t have the space to accommodate them."
Over the summer, Landry and David Sabour, Sundance’s manager of ticketing systems, started brainstorming among the Sundance staff to find a new system. What they came up with, developed by the Vancouver, B.C., digital firm Intergalactic Agency Inc., is an electronic wait-list system accessible via the Internet by smartphone, tablet or computer.
To use the new system, first a moviegoer must register on the Sundance website (ewaitlist.sundance.org), and get the free mobile app. (If you don’t have a mobile device, the festival will direct you to computer stations available at various locations. The old numbering system will no longer be in use.)
On the app, one can see what movies are starting in a two-hour window. One selects a film, and gets a wait-list Q number. The moviegoer shows up at the theater 30 minutes before showtime and gets in line with the other Q-number holders, just like the old system.
The system only lets a patron select one movie at a time, so don’t try squatting on several wait-lists and choosing the best one. The system shows how many empty seats are estimated to be available at each theater, letting patrons see how likely they are to get into a particular screening. And friends can link their accounts, so they can get onto a particular wait-list together.
Sabour and Landry said the new system has been tested thoroughly, and they think it can handle the traffic of thousands of eager festivalgoers. But they know not to get too confident until the festival is going at full steam. (Can you say "Obamacare website"?)
The new system may end the stress of waiting hours in the same spot, but it does retain a feature of the wait-list system all veteran festivalgoers love: The chance meetings in line with other movie lovers.
"It’s really fun camping out with a bunch of fellow film-lovers and getting to know them," Murdoch said. "One of my favorite parts about the festival is the people you meet, and nothing serves as a better social opportunity than waiting … in line with them."
Cooper envisions a possible side effect from the new system. "All the nearby coffee shops are going to feel an influx of business," he said.