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How to get the most out of ‘road-tested’ online Sundance Film Festival

Festival director Tabitha Jackson talks about a second year without in-person Utah screenings.

(Netflix) Kanye West is profiled in the documentary "jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy," directed by Clarence “Coodie” Simmons and Chike Ozah, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

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Tabitha Jackson wants to be in Park City on Jan. 20 as much as any movie fan.

“It’s really disappointing for me. Second year as festival director, I had hoped to be back on the mountain, strutting down Main Street and seeing all that beautiful [scenery],” Jackson told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday — a week after the Sundance Film Festival, of which she is in charge, made the decision to scrap in-person Utah screenings.

The festival starting Jan. 20 will now present movies in an online-only format for the second year in a row.

In the weeks and months ahead of that announcement, Jackson said, she and her team — which includes a staff epidemiologist and a COVID-19 compliance officer — were watching the data. By Tuesday, Jan. 4, it showed that transmission rates in Summit County would be peaking “right in the middle of our festival,” Jackson said.

“At that point, it seemed irresponsible to continue, giving the pressure we’d be putting on our host city and county,” Jackson said.

Jackson and Kim Yutani, the festival’s programming director, started sending letters out to the filmmakers whose works were programmed for the festival — and now would not get the in-person, premiere screening that they had been dreaming about.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tabitha Jackson MC's the Sundance bonfire community gathering on Swede Alley, in Park City, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

“The replies we received back were a combination of both authenticity — ‘we’re so disappointed’ — and also being able to see the bigger picture, which was, ‘We totally get why you needed to do this,’” Jackson said. “This is why we love these artists, because they get it. They can be authentically disappointed and they can see the bigger picture and make the meaning that they need to from it.”

(One exception was the French horror-comedy “Final Cut,” directed by “The Artist” writer-director Michel Hazanavicius. The movie, in which a crew making a zombie movie gets attacked by actual zombies, was pulled shortly after Sundance announced the switch to online-only, as the filmmakers want to delay its premiere until they can get it in front of an in-person audience.)

With the 2022 Sundance Film Festival running online through Jan. 30, The Salt Lake Tribune has compiled some tips to navigate the festival without feeling intimidated. Considering one can attend the festival in their pajamas, from their couch, it should be a cinch.

Get familiar with the format

“We’ve road-tested the platform,” Jackson said, adding that Sundance conducted an in-depth survey of the festival’s 2021 virtual attendees to learn what worked and what could be improved.

“What surprised us last year that the quality of the projection, as it were — the stability of the image, the quality of the films — worked incredibly well. So we’re not changing anything about that,” she said.

(Beth Garrabrant | Sundance Institute) Finn Wolfhard and Julianne Moore star in "When You Finish Saving the World," directed by Jesse Eisenberg, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

All 83 feature films in the festival’s program will stream online, as will 59 new short films, a collection of classic shorts, and six Indie Episodic entries.

For the feature films, to approximate a “real” Sundance experience, each will be given a “premiere” slot during one of the festival’s first five days, Jan. 20-24. Start watching within three hours of the film’s start time — though it’s better to start on time, so you can experience the show along with fellow moviegoers, as well as the live Q&A session after the film.

(Wyatt Garfield | Sundance Institute) Rebecca Hall stars in "Resurrection," directed by Andrew Semans, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Jackson said Sundance has made tweaks in its social platform, to make the path into live Q&As smoother.

As with the 2021 festival, a film’s second “screening” will take place two days after the “premiere,” and the window to stream it will run 24 hours, starting at 8 a.m. MST that day.

Once you start streaming a film, you have five hours to finish — more than enough time for most films, which tend to run between 90 minutes and 2 hours. (One outlier is W. Kamau Bell’s docuseries for Showtime, “We Need to Talk About Cosby,” which clocks in at 4 hours.) So don’t worry if you have to pause a movie to answer the phone or feed the cat.

You will need to buy a ticket for all feature film screenings — and there will be caps put on the number of people who can stream a film on the same day. Yes, that creates an artificial scarcity, but it also ensures there will still be audiences wanting to see these titles after distributors buy them.

Choose something unusual

Odds are a title with famous actors, or documentaries about familiar figures, will be appearing somewhere outside of Sundance within the year.

For example, the Kanye West documentary “jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy” will be on Netflix. Amazon Studios is behind Amy Poehler’s documentary “Lucy and Desi.” And Joachim Trier’s already-acclaimed Norwegian romantic drama “The Worst Person in the World” — a safe bet for an Academy Award nomination in the International Film category — will be released in theaters in February.

So browse the festival guide, especially the World Cinema competitions and the more experimental Next films, and take a gamble on something that looks completely alien to you, something you’re not likely to see come this way again. You may surprise yourself.

(Sundance Institute/IFC Midnight) A gymnast (Siiri Solalinna) is given an egg to care for in the Finnish horror thriller "Hatching," directed by Hanna Bergholm, an official selection of the Midnight section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Skip to the end

The festival’s award ceremony is set for Friday, Jan. 28. The closing weekend, Jan. 29-30, the festival will stream a selection of the award winners.

That weekend, Sundance also will screen some movies in person — just not in Utah. Screenings are set in arthouse theaters in seven cities, COVID-19 conditions permitting: Baltimore; Memphis; San Diego; Seattle; Amherst, Massachusetts; Lawrence, Kansas; and Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Go for the shorts

The short films and Indie Episodic programs will be available to stream at any time during the festival’s 10-day run. An Explorer Pass, for $50, secures access to all of them. Buying another ticket package or pass also gets you the Explorer Pass.

In addition to the new short films, Sundance programmers have picked 40 shorts from past festivals to celebrate the Sundance Institute’s 40th anniversary. The classic shorts include works from filmmakers who have gone on to do big things, such as Destin Daniel Cretton (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”), Tamara Jenkins (“Slums of Beverly Hills”) and Taika Waititi (“Thor: Ragnarok,” “Jojo Rabbit”).

Explore the New Frontier

(Cie Gilles Jobin | Sundance Institute) An image from "Cosmogony," by Gilles Jobin, Susana Panadés Diaz, Camilo de Martino and Tristan Siodlak an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The Explorer Pass also grants access to the New Frontier programs, the series of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (XR) works that stretch the boundaries of storytelling.

Most of these can be viewed from one’s computer or smartphone. If you happen to own a decent VR device, or have been looking for an excuse to buy one, the works in this program will reward your technological curiosity.

Ride The Spaceship

A laptop or VR rig also will be useful in accessing The Spaceship, the festival’s virtual meeting place. Designed to resemble a deluxe cocktail party in space, The Spaceship will be home to post-screening parties, filmmaker conversations, panel discussions and sponsor events — and will be a place to connect with online festival attendees from all over.

One change to The Spaceship, Jackson said, was inspired by the deaf actors from the movie “CODA,” which won a record four top prizes at the 2021 festival and is considered an underdog contender for Academy Awards glory.

“We had designed [The Spaceship] so that it was about talking, not texting,” Jackson said. The “CODA” team, which included several deaf actors (including Oscar-winner Marlee Matlin), found the system wasn’t accessible to them. So this year, The Spaceship will allow for speech and text.

(Sundance Institute) An image from The Spaceship, a virtual meeting space that will be part of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival's New Frontier program.

Watch the free stuff

The Festival Village is where people on the online platform can enjoy free experiences. It includes sponsor activations and the streaming version of the Sundance/ASCAP Music Cafe.

This year’s performance line-up for the Music Cafe features: Country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark; punk legend John Doe (of the band X); Evan + Zane, a collaboration of singer/actor Evan Rachel Wood (who is the subject of the documentary “Phoenix Rising”) and guitarist/singer-songwriter Zane Carney; soul-pop singer-songwriter Hayley Sales; R&B singer-songwriter Jordan Hawkins, and Zimbabwean-American singer-songwriter Shungudzo.

The Music Cafe will also feature conversations between Sundance filmmakers and their composers: Nina Menkes and Sharon Farber, to talk about “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”; “Neptune Frost” directors Saul Williams (who’s also the composer and screenwriter) and Anisia Uzeyman; “Call Jane” director Phyllis Nagy and composer Isabella “The Machine” Summers; and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” composer Este Haim (of the band Haim) and Christopher Stacey.

(Hugo Wong | Sundance Institute) Nina Menkes delivers her talk on the movies' links to sex and power, in the documentary "Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power," directed by Menkes, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Don’t forget Slamdance

Sundance’s upstart kid brother, the Slamdance Film Festival, made the decision to go online-only before Sundance did. Slamdance also delayed its launch a week, so it will be running Jan. 27-Feb. 6 — with the entire slate available for streaming for just $10.

Slamdance announced Tuesday that once its festival is over, it will turn its web portal into a new streaming platform for independent films, the Slamdance Channel (at slamdancechannel.com). A subscription to the channel will go for $7.99 a month, $23.99 for three months, and $74.99 annually, with discounts for students with an .edu email address.

Simulate the Park City experience

If you miss the in-person festival vibe, you can still try to make it feel like you’re in Park City.

Trudge through the snow. Stand under an outdoor heater. Get a bunch of friends and cram onto a bus. Eat a sandwich that was wrapped in plastic. Pay $30 for a plate of spaghetti. Complain about the rude New Yorkers and the entitled Angelenos. Don’t get enough sleep. Lose yourself in someone else’s vision.

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