Park City wonders what an online-only Sundance Film Festival will mean for its economy

Will visiting skiers fill the hole left by thousands of movie lovers staying home to stream films?

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Foot traffic in front of the Egyptian Theatre on Main Street in Park City on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021.

Tucked into a renovated Masonic Hall, upscale Riverhorse on Main is “bought out morning, noon and night” during the Sundance Film Festival, says co-owner and chef Seth Adams, “doing different activations all day long — whether it’s a movie premiere or just a cocktail party or a late-night event with a DJ or a band.”

The restaurant’s neighbors in Park City’s historic district are taken over for corporate lounges, as brands like Chase Sapphire, CNN, Amazon and others move in for the first weekend of America’s showcase for independent film.

“It’s always fun to see how Park City becomes New York City for a week,” said Katharine Wang, executive director of the nonprofit Park City Film.

Many Main Street businesses and galleries “can do a significant portion of their income just from Sundance” events that rent their space, said Max Doilney, a member of the City Council and co-owner of Corner Store Pub & Grill.

This year is different. As the 2021 Sundance Film Festival begins Thursday online, with all in-person events in Utah canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Park City is waiting to see what a festival-free January will bring.

[Read more: How to navigate the online-only 2021 Sundance Film Festival — from your couch]

A lot of money is on the line. Out-of-state visitors spent almost $135 million in Utah during last year’s festival, the bulk of that in Park City, according to an economic impact survey by Y2 Analytics, commissioned by the Sundance Institute. Utah residents, who made up nearly two-thirds of the festival’s 116,800 attendees, spent another $15.5 million.

Beyond the lost income for businesses and nonprofits, state and local governments will miss the taxes paid by visitors — estimated at more than $17.5 million last year.

Park City’s government had planned for “a much heavier hit” in fiscal year 2021 than its sales tax revenue currently reflects, Doilney said, “so I think we’re going to be OK.” The city is projecting sales-tax collection will get close to pre-pandemic levels in June.

Still, leaders budgeted $15.2 million in sales tax for the 12-month period that ended June 30, 2020. It’s projected to have $9.7 million in sales tax by the end of this fiscal year — a drop of 36%.

Restaurants expect a financial dip, but not a disastrous one

During the usual 10 days of the festival, the “freestyle Asian cuisine” restaurant Shabu makes about $200,000 in revenue — compared to about $120,000 in 10 days during a regular ski season, said owner Kevin Valika.

Sundance is “where our bread and butter is, just in the volume of diners that are here to experience the festival,” he said. “We open earlier and stay open later.”

Shabu also makes money during Sundance renting out its Old Main Street space — which could seat 80 people before the pandemic — to “elite, smaller groups” for corporate events, parties and lounges, Valika said.

His favorite memory is from 2014, when rock star Dave Grohl and his musician friends had a dinner there.

Jeff Barnard, one of the owners of The Eating Establishment on Old Main, said his restaurant has been rented out during Sundance’s opening weekend for the last three years by New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts — as a gathering spot for alums who have films in the festival.

“We won’t be able to make that up, because the revenue is more than we could do — especially this year, when we’re doing social distancing in the restaurant,” Barnard said. (Like most business owners interviewed, he wouldn’t divulge exact dollar figures.)

The Eating Establishment’s revenue for January probably will be about 10% lower than when Sundance is in town, Barnard said — a dip, not a catastrophe.

“The restaurant does well all the time,” Barnard said. “... I expect it to be a little less than would be otherwise. But still a strong business.”

Some Park City restaurants, bars and hotels can seek help under the pandemic relief package Congress delivered in December, which included $284.5 billion to allow a second forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loan to the hospitality industry and other hard-hit businesses.

Will skiers fill the gap?

When the film festival’s in town, people who stay at the Park City Mountain Resort generally come into Doilney’s nearby Corner Store restaurant only for breakfast, before heading out for a day of moviegoing and parties.

This January, he said, he’s expecting customers for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as the resort’s guests are more exclusively skiers. “A lot of skiers love Sundance, because there’s nobody on the mountain,” Doilney said.

Of the average $3,066 that out-of-state festivalgoers spent in Utah last year, nearly half, or $1,439, was for lodging. The occupancy rate for Park City hotels in the last week of January 2020 hit 73%.

This year, occupancy for that week is expected to hit about 40%, according to projections collected last week by the Park City Chamber of Commerce, where officials credit a spate of last-minute bookings for it not being lower.

In mid-December, occupancy was projected to be 23% for Jan. 28, the festival’s opening night.

“We’re most fortunate that winter sports lovers have continued to visit Park City during the month of January,” said Jennifer Wesselhoff, the Park City Chamber’s president and CEO.

A spot-check of a half-dozen hotels in Park City — all of which would be fully booked during a normal festival year — found vacancies during the festival’s run, Jan. 28 to Feb. 3.

Valika expects the festival’s physical absence to be balanced out with more skiers. “There are still people coming to town to experience the clean mountain air,” he said.

“The feeling I get,” he added, ”is that they’d rather be here in the mountains with COVID than in L.A. with COVID, if they’ve got a second home.”

Brooks Kirchheimer, co-owner of restaurant Hearth and Hill in Kimball Junction, isn’t so sure skiers will be flocking to Park City.

“It’s tough to all of a sudden be, like, ‘OK, everybody, Sundance isn’t happening this year. Now, all these families that have been going to other ski destinations all these years, you should come to Park City this year,’” he said.

Kirchheimer said he expected business at Hearth and Hill — a short walk from the Redstone 8 Cinemas, a Sundance venue — to be down about 20% this January, compared to last year.

Maren Mullin, who owns the Main Street art space Gallery MAR and keeps it open for artists during the festival, sees both ups and downs in the annual crush. This year, she welcomes “a typical, busy winter week” on Main Street, “where we have guests coming in for skiing and shopping and dining, per usual.”

Sundance, “with all of the beautiful music and films and everything that it brings to us,” she said, “also brings a disposable mentality. A lot of companies come in and are here for a week, and they leave behind a lot of garbage and things the city has to clean up after. It might be nice to have just one year where it’s just our typical guests.”

Nonprofits will miss the money — but the relationships more

Wang, with Park City Film, will miss the Sundance crowds. The nonprofit formed in 1995 as a thank-you to volunteers who staff the 500-seat Jim Santy auditorium in the Park City Library during the festival, and it became an outlet for locals to see festival films year-round.

Fifteen percent of its revenue comes from the concessions it sells across the hall from the theater. Beyond the financial boost, though, Sundance is where 100-plus volunteers “get to be with our tribe,” Wang said. “... They love interacting with the filmmakers, and film lovers from around the world… kvetching over a box of popcorn or some turkey chili.”

The festival’s signature venue on Old Main, the Egyptian Theatre, is losing out on rent from Sundance, said Randy Barton, executive director of the nonprofit Egyptian Theatre Company.

But that’s only a small part of the Egyptian’s $3.5 million annual budget, he said. Where Sundance’s absence really hits the Egyptian, Barton said, is that festival access is a perk that draws the theater company’s season-ticket subscribers.

And, he added, “It’s not just about money. It’s emotional. It’s their home and it’s our home.”

Without festivalgoers walking in front of Park City High School, along the walkway between prime venue Eccles Center Theatre and a popular shuttle stop, members of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance won’t be out there selling hot chocolate and treats this January.

In the last few years, said Mary Purzycki, a health-sciences teacher at the school and the GSA’s faculty adviser, the students’ festival snack stop has raised between $2,000 and $3,000. It takes half for expenses and donates the rest to a Salt Lake City youth shelter or other worthy causes.

But here, too, the benefits are not measured only in dollars, Purzycki said.

“The bigger part of it ... was my students connecting with other people from the LGBTQ community in ways that I never, ever imagined,” she said. Some filmmakers gave talks to the students or offered them tickets to their movies.

“It really helps the kids see,” Purzycki said, “that there are people out there who care.”