Sundance Film Festival will explore options beyond 2026 — and a move out of Utah is on the table

Utah leaders say the state is ‘well-positioned to continue’ hosting the festival that started in Salt Lake City in 1978.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Egyptian Theatre, on Main Street in Park CIty, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. The Sundance Film Festival announced on Apr. 17, 2024, it will open a process to “explore viable locations in the United States to host” the festival, beginning in 2027 — a move that will likely determine whether the festival will stay in Utah or move elsewhere.

The organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, which has called Park City home for more than 40 years, are taking a hard look at the independent film event’s future — including whether it will stay in Utah or move elsewhere.

The Sundance Institute, the nonprofit that has presented the Sundance Film Festival since 1985, announced Wednesday it is starting a process to “explore viable locations in the United States to host” the festival, beginning in 2027.

Eugene Hernandez, director of the festival and head of the institute’s public programming, said the move was prompted by the fact that the festival’s contract with Park City is up for renewal. The institute is obligated to inform Park City by October whether it will start negotiating a new contract.

“This hasn’t happened in over a decade,” Hernandez said, “so in really trying to think about how to be the most responsible to our festival, … we created this [Request for Information] and [Request for Proposals] process that can help us really develop the right process to evaluate and consider about how we build the future of the festival.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Troy Higgins makes a delivery along Main Street in Park City on opening-day of the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

In a statement Wednesday, Park City Mayor Nann Worel said the city “will work collaboratively with all our state and local partners on next steps.”

Worel said, “we appreciate our partnership with Sundance, and we want the festival to remain here for another 40 years. We will not be alone in the effort to ensure that Utah remains host to diverse new voices from around the globe.”

Erin Mendenhall, the mayor of Salt Lake City, said in a statement Wednesday that Sundance’s announcement “will kick off conversations and proposals to ensure independent filmmaking and the Sundance Film Festival continue to be celebrated sources of connection and inspiration for our communities here locally and globally. … We look forward to being part of the Institute’s exploration of building an even greater Sundance Film Festival. The potential to create a more accessible, inspiring, and uplifting event is endless.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, in a statement Wednesday, said the county “is committed to partnering with Sundance, other governments and the broader community to ensure that the festival remains an asset in Utah for decades to come.”

Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission, said Wednesday in a statement that “we see this as an opportunity to reimagine what the future of the festival looks like in Utah. With over 40 years of demonstrated success as the home of the Sundance Film Festival, we are well-positioned to continue this partnership.”

How the process will work

The process, according to a release from the institute, begins Wednesday with a Request For Information (RFI) phase, which will run for two weeks and close on May 1. Interested parties can submit proposals to proposal@sundance.org.

The festival, the release said, “will employ the RFI process to identify new opportunities to elevate artists while providing a space that reflects the festival’s values of inclusion, racial equity, accessibility and belonging at every level for artists, audiences, staff and volunteers.”

On May 7, a Request for Proposals (RFP) phase will open. In this phase of the process, “specific details will be assessed,” the release said. The RFP process will close on June 21.

A final decision on the festival’s location for 2027 and beyond will be announced in the fourth quarter of this year or the first quarter of 2025.

Hernandez didn’t share specifics about the criteria the institute is looking for from cities or proposals, except that it is all “about continuing the vital work of the Sundance festival.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Eugene Hernandez, new director of the Sundance Film Festival, in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024.

He added, “we really want and hope Utah will go along on this journey with us, and we feel like we’re really well-suited to have this conversation with our friends in Utah, because of the long history and legacy of this festival that we share together.”

Hernandez noted that the 2025 and 2026 festivals will be held in Park City — and that he already has started watching early films for next year’s festival, which the institute announced in March will happen in Park City and Salt Lake City from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2, 2025.

A long shared history

“We are committed to our audience, because the audience has been committed to Sundance for all of these decades,” he said. “This is a festival for people who live there in Utah, and also for people who travel. … So for 2027 and beyond that, we’re going do what’s best for artists and [the] audience. But there’s no need to panic.”

The institute’s release noted the decades that Sundance has been in Utah. “Sundance Institute’s connection to Utah is profound, reflecting decades of shared cultural achievements that have shaped the festival into what it is today,” the release said.

The festival’s connection to Utah predates the institute’s existence. The first Utah/US Film Festival was held September 1978 in Salt Lake City, and moved to Park City in January 1981 — a few months before actor-director-activist Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute as a laboratory for independent filmmakers. In 1985, the institute took over operations of what was then called the United States Film Festival; the name was changed to Sundance in 1991.

When Sundance came to Park City, Mayor Worel said in her statement, “it was buoyed by a tight-knit and passionate group of individuals who worked together to provide a voice for independent storytellers that became impactful beyond anyone’s imagination.”

At the same time, Worel said, Park City was “just starting to realize what this place could become. As Sundance grew, so did we — into a world-class mountain town that welcomes the world year-round.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Robert Redford, seated alongside festival director John Cooper, answers questions from the media at the Egyptian Theatre as the Sundance Film Festival gets underway in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010.

Over the years, festival visitors from time to time have complained about trudging through the snow during Sundance — but Redford has long argued that the difficulty of navigating the festival was the point.

“The snow and the inconvenience — I love it,” Redford told The Tribune in 1996. “This is sort of what the idea was: Make it in the winter, move into Park City, make it a little rougher atmosphere to suit the image of what independent film is.”

Redford, 87, retired from acting in 2018 (his last on-screen role was in 2019′s “Avengers: Endgame”), and as founder is on the institute’s board of trustees. His daughter, Amy, also a filmmaker, is also a board member — and will be on the task force looking through the RFI and RFP submissions.

The film community reacts

Reaction from people with an interest in the festival, either as attendees or filmmakers, was sharp.

“Oh no!” wrote Whit Stillman, the director of the 1989 comedy “Metropolitan,” one of the festival’s early successes, in a Wednesday email to The Tribune.

“I love Park City, and the Egyptian was a magical spot to debut a first film — cinema karma is key (the film played poorly at the [Prospector Square] conference center),” Stillman wrote. “I hope this is just a hostage ploy to get ransom money for the festival’s budget — but it’s true that Park City has gotten pricey for an indie film fest.”

Katie Rife, a freelance film writer, responded on X (formerly Twitter) by suggesting that a new location “somewhere where all the trans filmmakers attending Sundance can use the bathroom would be nice.”

Tomris Laffly, a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, wrote on X about her experiences covering Redford’s opening-day news conferences. Redford, Laffly wrote, “always talked about film as an agent of change & how crucial embracing change is to the fest.” She added that Sundance “welcoming this change feels so in synch [with] the festival’s history [and] founding principles.”

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, also on X, said his suggestion for a Sundance location “is the same as everyone’s and therefore different from everyone’s: ‘around the corner from me.’”

Wednesday’s announcement comes at a turbulent time for the festival and the institute — weeks after the sudden departure of the institute’s CEO, Joana Vicente, who had held the job for just 2½ years. Amanda Kelso, a member of the institute’s board, has been named acting CEO.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joana Vicente, CEO of Sundance Institute, leads a conversation during the Sundance Scoop opening-day press conference at the Filmmaker Lodge in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024. Vicente left the CEO job in March 2024.

This year’s festival, Hernandez’s first as director, saw an increase in single-ticket prices. Two of the festival’s largest Park City venues, the Eccles Theatre and the Prospector Square Theatre, housed movie screenings only during the festival’s first half. Two other venues, the MARC and the Temple Theatre, have not been used since 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced Sundance to go completely online in 2021 and 2022.

IndieWire, the online trade publication Hernandez co-founded, reported in March that Metropolitan Theaters Corporation, which operates two of Sundance’s Park City venues — the Redstone 8 and Holiday Village Cinemas 4 multiplexes — filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in February. Park City radio station KPCW later reported that the Holiday Village has closed its doors.

On the upside, according to the trade paper Variety, the festival’s inaugural gala fundraiser — which toasted actor Kristen Stewart and directors Christopher Nolan and Celine Song — raked in $1.5 million for the nonprofit. And, The New York Times reported, distribution deals for festival films were robust after a slow start.

According to its most recent 990 forms — the tax forms nonprofits file with the Internal Revenue Service — in 2021, Sundance Institute took in $24 million more in revenue than in 2020, and ended the year with $78.1 million in net assets and a net revenue of $13 million.

The festival continued to attract independent filmmakers and fans from around the world. The 2024 festival drew 17,345 submissions from 153 countries — the most in its history.

On a podcast in January, reported by KPCW, Vicente spoke about the challenges the festival faced being held in Park City, including accessibility and cost. She also expressed excitement about what the festival is doing in its Salt Lake City venues, “really getting to a more diverse, younger audience.”

Hernandez, who has been attending the festival for 30 years, said the event has continued to “evolve right in front of everyone’s eyes.”

What brings success to the festival, Hernandez said, is “so inherent in what you can see at the Sundance Film Festival over these 40-plus years. … It’s that openness of the audience. It’s that careful curation.”

This is a developing story.

Tribune culture & business editor Sean P. Means and business reporter Shannon Sollitt contributed to this report.