There’s a lot we don’t know about the 2021 Sundance Film Festival because of the coronavirus pandemic, the festival’s new director says, but there are two things she knows for sure: A lot of the festival will take place online, and the festival that happens in person won’t just happen in Utah.
Festival director Tabitha Jackson lays out her thinking about the 2021 festival in a memo the Sundance Institute released Monday. The memo, she wrote, “is not an announcement, but rather an invitation into the process of building something together this year.”
Jackson wrote that she and the Sundance staff are trying to plan under a public health situation where people are allowed to gather, “but there is no widely available COVID-19 vaccine.” Built into that scenario is the assumption that socially distanced gatherings will be allowed in Utah, as they are now, “but travel is greatly reduced,” she wrote.
With that in mind, Jackson wrote, the festival must rethink such festival staples as shuttle buses, waitlist tents and large events (such as the closing-night awards show and party) that put many people in a small space. Changing how those are handled “may limit the number of theaters we use during the festival in Utah,” she wrote.
The festival traditionally runs in Park City, and at venues in Salt Lake City and at the Sundance resort. The festival drew an estimated audience of 122,313 visitors in 2019, according to the institute’s economic impact statement — with 64% from Utah and 36% from out of state.
Jackson outlines two definite changes to the 2021 festival.
In-person events will happen in Utah, the festival’s home since the Sundance Institute took over operations of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival in 1985, and in “at least 20 independent and community cinemas across the U.S. and beyond.” She said the festival’s full program will play out in Utah, but theaters in other cities “will host a bespoke slate from the official selection alongside complementary programming of their own.”
Sundance has tried satellite programs before, on a smaller scale. In 2012, Jackson’s predecessor, John Cooper, mounted a one-night “Sundance Film Festival USA,” with films that played in Park City screening in art-house theaters in nine cities from San Francisco to Boston. The program continued through 2014.
The festival will go online “in a way it never has been before,” Jackson wrote, as audiences will be able to view “the curated program and take part in discussions and special live events online via a brand-new platform.” The online platform “will be the nucleus of the Festival, a showcase for a world of new work, and home to a global community of festivalgoers who will encounter the art, the artists, and each other.”
Sundance has experimented with online presentation in past years, launching a “Sundance Online Film Festival” to showcase short films in 2001.
Everything else about the logistics of the 2021 festival, Jackson said, is in flux, as “there are very few certainties in these uncertain times,” she wrote. Sundance is even considering pushing the festival’s start date of Jan. 21, 2021, back a week, to give a wide berth to the next presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
Through it all, Jackson said, “we are lucky to have as our North Star a well-defined and decades-long mission of championing the independent voice.”
Park City Mayor Andy Beerman, in an email, said his city “will work closely with Sundance to create a safe and welcoming environment in whatever form we can safely sustain next winter.”
With restrictions on travel and mass gatherings, Beerman said, “the upcoming winter could be very different than a traditional winter for Park City.” He praised the festival’s “thoughtful approach,” saying Sundance is “well suited to adapt to the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic in the modern world.”
Barb Guy, marketing/PR director for the Salt Lake Film Society, said in a statement that the nonprofit — which operates the Broadway Centre Cinemas and the Tower Theatre, both Sundance venues — “is willing and able to travel with Sundance on the uncertain journey toward contributing in any and all ways to the best possible [festival] next January.”
Jackson wrote that she began trying to reenvision the festival when she took the director’s job at the end of the 2020 festival, before “coronavirus” became a household word.
“Although it is fair to say that I had not factored a global pandemic and an international reckoning around racial justice into my job application,” Jackson wrote, “I did know that as we write the next chapter in the incredible history of the Sundance Film Festival I would want to pose a slightly counterintuitive question: ‘Where do we begin?’”
Jackson said she took her cue from the Sundance Institute’s founder, actor-filmmaker Robert Redford, who said to her, “I invite you to think not just outside the box, but as if the box never existed.”
Sundance will be watching other festivals — notably the fall festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York — and “exchanging ideas and improving on the specifics over the coming months,” Jackson wrote. “Together, we can thoughtfully build this special edition of the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps breaking some ‘rules’ as we go.”
The memo: How Sundance 2021 might look
The following is the full text of a memo, written by Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson and released by the Sundance Institute on Monday, outlining what Sundance is planning for the 2021 festival — and what is still to be decided.
SUBJ: Planning next year’s Sundance Film Festival
FROM: Tabitha Jackson
As we plan for our 2021 Festival — my first in the Director’s chair — and with submissions now open, I wanted to give you an early insight into how we are thinking. This is not an announcement, but rather an invitation into the process of building something together this year. There are very few certainties in these uncertain times, but we are lucky to have as our North Star a well-defined and decades-long mission of championing the independent voice.
That mission — driven by our values of inclusion, equity, and accessibility — becomes more urgent with every passing day. We also have a world of artists making bold powerful work that creatively expresses a lived experience, reveals its complexities, delights in its absurdities, and challenges its injustices. And we have you — this community — which over the years has empowered us to do something extraordinary every January in Utah. With these elements magic can surely happen.
Although it is fair to say that I had not factored a global pandemic and an international reckoning around racial justice into my job application, I did know that as we write the next chapter in the incredible history of the Sundance Film Festival I would want to pose a slightly counterintuitive question: “Where do we begin?”
I began with our founder, Robert Redford, who imagined a different landscape for independent artists, one where the work they wished to make could be developed and supported outside of the studio system. He created a new space for imaginative possibility and creative community. We call that space Sundance.
We spoke about our animating purpose, about the importance he places on gathering together in person, and about the role of art itself. But it was this provocation that I found as profound in its generosity as it was liberating in its effect: “I invite you to think not just outside the box, but as if the box never existed.”
So with that we began to imagine a kind of Sundance Film Festival unbound:
• An edition respectful of the public health situation, responsive to the moment, and reimagined in and for extraordinary times.
• An edition doubling down on our values of access, equity, inclusivity, and independence.
• An expanded Festival in which we preserve the possibility of in-person gathering while providing access to those unable or unwilling to travel.
• A unique celebration of independent cinema and community.
• A single festival expressed locally, globally, in-person, and online.
Although this planning had started as a response to an economic downturn and global health crisis, it became an opportunity for creative and expansive thinking.
In the Atacama Desert in Chile, there is an array of 66 telescopes turned toward the stars. Alone each one is not powerful enough to capture the extent of the universe astronomers are seeking to know. But combined, this multiplicity of perspectives has the power to reveal the structures of the system we inhabit, which had been hidden from us by distance and time.
This is my image for the Festival: a powerful array of perspectives, of talent and artistry — combining with audiences in homes and cities and across countries to reveal new truths. An accessible, inclusive Sundance Film Festival whose form this year enables us, together, to see differently.
So enough of the conceptual stuff — what might this look like on the ground? Seven months out, we are actively planning for the following public health scenario: We are allowed to gather, but there is no widely available COVID-19 vaccine. With the knowledge that as of now socially distanced gatherings are permitted in Utah and other states, but travel is greatly reduced — and large events, shuttle buses, and crowded waitlist tents can not be supported which may limit the number of theaters we use during the Festival in Utah.
We hope for better news about the pandemic by January 2021, but we also must plan for the greatest challenges. We have discovered that the planning is in fact an invitation to think differently about the form of the Festival.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival will be a grand partnership of communities. It will take place live in Utah and in at least 20 independent and community cinemas across the U.S. and beyond. Utah has been the home of the Festival for close to 40 years and always will be, but the 2021 Festival will extend beyond Utah and will be co-created by and for different communities in different locations, preserving what is magical about experiencing films on the big screen with others — even if at a smaller and socially distanced scale.
While the full program plays out in Utah, each of our partners will host a bespoke slate from the official selection alongside complementary programming of their own. Their communities acting as vibrant hubs of creativity, maker culture, and adventurous audiences. This plan acknowledges the vital role of the independent cinema network in our ecosystem. We are in exploratory discussions with cinemas from LA to Louisville, from New York to Nashville, from Austin to Atlanta, from Detroit to Denver, from Minneapolis to Mexico City — with many more to come.
At the center of all our planning, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will have an online home, making the festival accessible in a way it never has been before. Audiences will have the opportunity to view the curated program and take part in discussions and special live events online via a brand-new platform. This will be the nucleus of the Festival, a showcase for a world of new work, and home to a global community of festivalgoers who will encounter the art, the artists, and each other. A one-stop point of access, designed to create a participatory experience which brings all the elements and locations of the Festival together. It will center our values of engagement, inclusion, and entertainment, and connect artists with the first audiences as their work meets the world. All this in a way that captures the energy and excitement that has long defined the Sundance Film Festival.
As every day currently feels like a week, and every month like a year, we cannot know what the world will look like in January 2021. But as we plan this scenario, we are building in flexibility, including considering a different start date (January 28) to provide some room between the U.S. presidential inauguration and the start of the Festival.
The success of this idea, indeed its very heartbeat, depends upon collaboration — between us and key players in this delicate ecology of independent cinema. Rest assured that even amid the excitement of experimentation, if our approach doesn’t work for the artist, it doesn’t work for us. Our model intentionally allows us to dial up or dial down the live gatherings (especially in our Utah home) and Festival length as conditions dictate. The structure as we are currently conceiving it will remain intact — a Festival that for this year is live and digital and is co-created with partners. A Festival that will serve our communities where they want to be, given conditions of pandemic and economy. A Festival that is more than the sum of its parts, but whose parts are all driven by values and the opportunity to think a different thought.
We will be cheering on and learning from our colleagues putting on festivals in the fall and once again recognizing how fortunate we were to be able to have our 2020 edition, and now have some time to think about 2021. We look forward to exchanging ideas and improving on the specifics over the coming months. Together we can thoughtfully build this special edition of the Sundance Film Festival, perhaps breaking some “rules” as we go.
We are reminded daily of the power of what is made newly visible to us, the importance of what we look at. My hope for this edition of the Sundance Film Festival is that through a multiplicity of perspectives held by artists and audiences in their various communities we will also come to feel the power of where we look from.