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How to navigate the online-only 2021 Sundance Film Festival — from your couch

Spend as little or as much as you want, without dealing with shuttle buses or icy sidewalks.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A banner for the Sundance Film Festival on Main Street is photographed in Park City on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The film festival will be held entirely online this year.

Most years, the advice for people going to the Sundance Film Festival involves wearing sturdy boots, picking a warm coat, stocking up on healthy snacks and carrying a bottle of hand sanitizer.

The hand sanitizer is still a good idea, in this age of COVID-19, and snacks are always recommended. But when most festival attendees will be doing so from home, as the festival goes online for 2021, the coat and boots are less important this year.

So what’s the best way to Sundance from your couch this year? That depends on how much you want out of the experience, and how much time and money you want to put into it.

Step 1: Set up an account.

Go the festival’s official website, festival.sundance.org. There, you’ll be asked to create an account for the festival’s online screening platform. Having an account is free.

Step 2: Buy your passes and tickets, or don’t.

With a $350 Festival Pass, you can see as many movies as your eyeballs and streaming device can handle from Jan. 28 to Feb. 3. A Day Pass, for $75, allows the same thing for a single day of the festival. Both passes also include the benefits of an Explorer Pass (available separately for $25) — which includes access to the short films, the New Frontier offerings and three of the Indie Series programs. Or for $15, you can get a ticket for a single film screening.

All of these options — except for the Explorer Pass — are available only to U.S. audiences.

If you decide not to buy passes or tickets, there are still plenty of free virtual events to enjoy. (More on those later.)

Step 3: Make your schedule.

If you have bought your pass, go to the festival’s program guide and start selecting what films you want to watch.

Every feature film gets a premiere in a dedicated three-hour time slot. It’s recommended that if you are going to watch a film’s premiere, you start streaming the movie on time — so you can watch the Q&A with cast and crew in real time.

There are three time slots on opening night, Jan. 28, and five time slots a day from Friday, Jan. 29, to Tuesday, Feb. 2 — so a dedicated viewer can cram in as many movies in a day as one could in Park City during the festival, without dealing with shuttle buses, bag searches or icy sidewalks.

Viewing slots are limited (because filmmakers hope to sell their work to a distributor later), so make reservations early.

If you miss a movie’s premiere screening, you have a second chance to see the movie. The second screening will happen two days after the first one, and there’s a 24-hour streaming window.

There’s also a chance the movie you want to see will win an award, chosen either by a jury or an audience vote. Those movies will screen again on the festival’s final day, Feb. 3.

Step 4: Look around Festival Village.

There’s a lot of nonscreening activity online, in Sundance’s Festival Village — which aims to capture the taste of the hustle and bustle of Park City during the in-person festival.

The village’s Main Street portal will have links to virtual sponsor lounges and events by nonprofit groups, as well as panel discussions and performances. There are also links to Sundance’s “Satellite Screens” — arthouses across the country (the Salt Lake Film Society is one) that are holding virtual and, where the pandemic permits, in-person events before and during the festival.

Step 5: Go somewhere — just not in Utah.

Festival organizers originally made a list of 33 cities across the country that would act as “satellite screens,” where in-person screenings would take place — all in socially distanced settings.

As the festival grew closer and COVID-19 continued to spread, organizers faced the harsh reality that some locations weren’t ready to have in-person events. Among the venues that Sundance had to cancel were the Rose Bowl parking lot in Pasadena, Calif., and the festival’s last remaining Park City venue, The Ray.

Still, 20 cities are planning in-person screenings, so if you want to make a trip to get the full Sundance experience, those places (listed online at fpg.festival.sundance.org/live-events) remain an option.

Step 6: Try the free stuff.

From the opening-night preview to the “It’s a Wrap” on the closing morning, the festival has scheduled plenty of events and talks online that can be viewed on the festival platform at no charge. They include the Cinema Cafe talks, “The Big Conversation” panels, the morning “Sundance Dailies” updates, and the Awards Night ceremony on Feb. 2.

Step 7: Don’t forget Slamdance

Sundance’s upstart kid brother, the Slamdance Film Festival, also is going all-digital this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s going to run online Feb. 12-25, with 25 features, more than 100 shorts and a variety of programs — including Unstoppable, Slamdance’s new program featuring filmmakers with disabilities.

Slamdance is inexpensive compared to Sundance, with virtual passes at $10 each, available through Slamdance.com.

Step 8: Buy a coat on clearance.

Plan ahead for the 2022 festival, which organizers hope will be back in Park City — one year and many, many jabs of a vaccine later.

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