Tabitha Jackson’s first year as director of the Sundance Film Festival hasn’t been too different from most people’s experiences working from home through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’ve been surgically attached to the Zoom screen,” Jackson told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday, working with her Sundance colleagues on a single problem: How to “get the work from the artists to the audiences without exposing people to a global pandemic.”
The answer, which Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute announced Wednesday, is to go mostly — but not entirely — online.
The 2021 Sundance Film Festival will be available largely through an online portal, which will stream new movies and other programming from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3, 2021.
“What we’re trying to do is understand what the energy of the in-person festival is, and see how that could be translated onto an online platform,” Jackson said.
To “dial up the intensity,” Jackson said, she and her team opted to shorten the festival from 11 days to seven — and streamline the program to around 70 feature films, down from the 120 or so selected most years. (The slate of films will be announced later this month.)
At the same time, Jackson said, “I don’t want Utahns to feel that they don’t have Sundance anymore. … We have a festival in Utah. It just happens to be online primarily this year.”
Jackson said one Park City venue, The Ray Theatre, will be deployed for some live in-person events — health protocols permitting. Sundance has also partnered with the Salt Lake Film Society, the nonprofit that runs the Broadway Centre Cinemas and Tower Theatre (both longtime Sundance venues), as one of the festival’s “satellite screens.”
Sundance has built a network of 33 “satellite screens” across the country, where independent theaters and cinema groups will host events for fans so they don’t have to travel to Park City. What happens at those locations is still to be determined, Jackson said — and will be determined by how the battle against the coronavirus is going in those cities.
Here are the cities and theaters that will be “satellite screens” for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival:
Atlanta, Ga. • Atlanta Film Society, The Plaza Theater, Plaza Drive-In, Dad’s Garage Drive-In.
Austin, Texas • Austin Film Society, AFS Cinema.
Baltimore, Md. • Maryland Film Festival, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Theater.
Birmingham, Ala. • Sidewalk Film Festival, Sidewalk Film Center, Sidewalk Drive-in.
Brookline, Mass. • Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Columbia, S.C. • The Luminal Theater, Spotlight Cinemas Capitol 6.
Columbus, Ohio • Gateway Film Center.
Dallas, Texas • Aviation Cinemas, Texas Theatre.
Denver, Colo. • Denver Film, Sie FilmCenter.
Detroit, Mich. • Cinema Detroit.
Honolulu, Hawaii • Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA).
Houston, Texas • Houston Cinema Arts Society, MoonStruck Drive-In, DeLUXE Theater.
Iowa City, Iowa • FilmScene at The Chauncey.
Key West, Fla. • Tropic Cinema, The Key West Lighthouse, The Truman Little White House, The Ernest Hemingway House and Museum.
Louisville, Ky. • The Speed Art Museum.
Macon, Ga. • Macon Film Festival, Douglass Theatre.
Memphis, Tenn. • Indie Memphis, Malco Summer Drive-In.
Miami, Fla. • Third Horizon and O Cinema, New World Symphony SoundScape Park, South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.
Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn. • FilmNorth, Riverview Theater.
Montclair, Calif. • American Cinématique, Mission Tiki Drive-In.
Nashville, Tenn. • Belcourt Theatre.
New Orleans, La. • New Orleans Film Society, The Broad Theater.
Park City, Utah • The Ray.
Pasadena, Calif. • The Rose Bowl Drive-In.
Philadelphia, Pa. • BlackStar Film Festival.
Pleasaantville, N.Y. • The Jacob Burns Film Center & Media Arts Lab.
Salt Lake City, Utah • Salt Lake Film Society.
San Francisco, Calif. • The Roxie Theater, Fort Mason Drive-In.
San Juan, Puerto Rico • Asociación de Documentalistas de Puerto Rico (AdocPR); Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR).
Seattle, Wash. • Northwest Film Forum.
Tucson, Ariz. • The Loft Cinema, The Loft Open Air Cinema.
Tulsa, Okla. • Circie Cinema, Circle Cinema Drive-In, Admiral Twin Drive-In, Philbrook Museum, OSU-Tulsa, Tulsa University, Gilcrease Museum.
Wichita, Kan. • mama.film microcinema, Wichita Art Museum, Groover Labs.
In the virtual festival, each film will have a premiere screening at a designated time, starting with the “Day One” movies that will be shown at 6 p.m. Mountain time. After that, movies will start every three hours, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — with, at most, five films starting at once, simulating the everything-at-once feeling of attending the festival.
Viewers can watch simultaneously, or start the film within three hours of the scheduled start time. Each premiere screening will be followed by a live Q&A, “where the cast and crew can encounter an audience who just met the work for the first time as first audiences,” Jackson said.
Many film festivals went online this year, because of COVID-19 concerns, and Jackson said both filmmakers and audiences said they wanted more Q&As. “There was something they were hungry for, and that was that instant live reaction,” Jackson said.
Those who miss a film’s premiere screening will get a chance to watch a second screening, two days later. For the second screening, the film will be available on demand for 24 hours.
“You have to be there and you have to make a choice” for a movie’s premiere screening, just like in Park City, Jackson said. “But what we’ve also managed to do, in a ‘having your cake and eating it, too,’ is also building an on-demand element for those people who can’t get to the premiere at that certain time, but can catch it at a second screening with a longer window.”
All 70+ films will be closed-captioned on demand, and the Q&As will be live-captioned.
The short film program, with 50 selected titles, will be available for streaming on demand. So will the four episodic works in the Indie Series program (formerly Indie Episodic).
The New Frontier program, which highlights the blending of storytelling and technology, won’t have any site-specific installations this year. Instead, New Frontier will feature 14 online works. Sundance is introducing a custom-made virtual platform that will allow viewers from anywhere to engage with the works, using their computers and VR headsets.
The New Frontier platform will include: a gallery to see the complete slate of live performances, VR, augmented reality and other emerging media; a fully immersive big-screen theater, called Cinema House; and Film Party, billed as “an interactive social space where the entire community of accredited festivalgoers can safely gather together again.”
Sundance is developing a custom-built online platform, at festival.sundance.org. Besides being a portal to screenings, the platform is being designed as a gathering place of its own. The platform will have three parts: Festival Village, with a host of programming that’s free to everyone, hosted by Sundance’s satellite venues, partners and sponsors; Main Street, an area inspired by Park City’s iconic street, and featuring conversations with artists, musical performances and more; and the Artist Lounge, a space for creators to view artist programming, and for filmmakers to network and celebrate at private online events.
Jackson said the creation of Sundance Co//ab, the institute’s online portal for artists to network and workshop, was an inspiration for the festival’s website.
“[Co//ab] enabled us to take the lab experience, and that conversation and community, and make it accessible and reachable by artists across the world,” Jackson said, noting that Sundance’s famous summer labs were moved online because of the pandemic.
To stream movies and keep them secure, Sundance has enlisted Shift72, a video-streaming company that worked this year with SXSW and the Marche du Film, the film market at the Cannes Film Festival.
Tickets — whether for the full seven-day run, a one-day pass or an individual screening — will go on sale starting Jan. 7. Details will be announced later in December.
“We’re going to have a festival, whatever happens with the pandemic,” Jackson declared. “Hopefully, one that will be meaningful to the artists, who are generously giving us their work to show, and meaningful to the audiences who — among all the noise and the weariness and the pandemic-iness of life — still feel that it’s money well spent to go to Sundance from wherever they may be.”