Could the Sundance Film Festival leave Park City?

While this year’s online and out-of-state screenings open up possibilities, some say the mountain festival’s energy can’t be duplicated.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Actor Nicolas Cage is mobbed by fans as the 2018 Sundance Film Festival kicks off along Main Street in Park City on Friday, Jan. 19, 2018.

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For the first time in 40 years, movie lovers, stars and deal-makers won’t be filling the theaters, bars and streets of Park City in January.

Park City restaurateur Brooks Kirchheimer wonders how many will be back in 2022, after the coronavirus pandemic that pushed this year’s shortened festival online and to screens in other cities.

“Will the Sundance Institute and the film festival see things that are successful operating Sundance this year from a virtual standpoint, [so] that they determine to continue to operate [that way] for years to come?” asked Kirchheimer, co-owner of Hearth and Hill at Kimball Junction.

“It’s a concern that not many want to voice,” he said, “because they’re really worried that it might actually come to fruition.”

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

Early in the pandemic, film festivals discovered that moving online opened up movies to broader audiences. In a time of increased concern about equity, representation and climate change, virtual screenings are more affordable, more accessible and more environmentally friendly than flying to a destination city, veteran festival programmer Thom Powers wrote for IndieWire last May.

But drawbacks have emerged, too, with digital premieres less able to generate festival buzz for films.

And the Sundance Institute — the arts nonprofit founded by Robert Redford that operates the festival — has a contract with Park City to host it there through 2026.

Redford has long delighted in Park City’s vibe as the festival’s home, especially when Angelenos with inadequate footwear complain about the mountain weather. “The snow and the inconvenience — I love it,” Redford said in a 1996 interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. “This is sort of what the idea was: Make it in the winter, move it into Park City, make it a little rougher atmosphere to suit the image of what independent film is.”

But at 84, Redford has reduced his visibility at the festival; his traditional chats during the opening-day news conference have been trimmed to a cameo. He retired from acting in 2018 (except for a brief appearance in “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019), and in December sold the Sundance Mountain Resort.

Still, Betsy Wallace, the institute’s chief financial officer and Utah managing director, said the festival is eager to return to Utah next year. “Park City and Utah is our home,” Wallace said. “In 2022, we’re going to work real hard — assuming COVID lets us — to come back at some level.”

How the 2021 break from Park City developed

Under Park City’s contract with Sundance, the institute promises to hold at least 70% of its events, including screenings, in Park City or the Snyderville Basin (which includes Kimball Junction). Sundance also must promote Park City in its materials, create youth programs, and hold free screenings for locals.

The festival is a lucrative resident — in 2020, it generated more than $17 million in state and local taxes, attracted out-of-state guests who spent just shy of $135 million in Utah, and created 2,730 jobs in the state, according to an economic impact survey it commissioned from Y2 Analytics. It fills restaurants and hotels, and drives support for galleries and nonprofits.

The City Council this fall approved easing its 70% requirement for 2021, at the institute’s request, when it became clear a full in-person festival would be a COVID-19 health risk, said Jenny Diersen, special events and economic development program manager for Park City’s municipal government.

[Read more: Park City wonders what an online-only Sundance Film Festival will mean for its economy]

“We have worked hand in hand with them through the entire year of 2020,” Diersen said, “ ... trying to figure out the best thing to do for the health and safety of our community, and for their staff and their talent and their organization.”

The plan announced in December by the festival’s new director, Tabitha Jackson, was for a mostly online festival, with in-person events in 33 cities for people uncomfortable with traveling.

As the plan developed, Jackson said in December, she saw that “a feature of this pandemic is to reflect on a sense of place, and where we find ourselves.” With society “kind of frozen” in place by the pandemic, “it’s made that network of art-house cinemas resonant,” she said, “to think of people in specific locations to be able to encounter the films of Sundance.”

But because of high COVID-19 case counts in some parts of the country, that list has been whittled to 20, with many of the remaining sites having access to drive-in theaters. Plans for Park City’s The Ray, a theater built in a former sporting goods store on Park Avenue, were canceled.

The “satellite screens” concept isn’t new — Jackson’s predecessor, John Cooper, launched Sundance Film Festival USA in 2010. On one night during the festival, selected Sundance movies screened in a handful of cities with filmmakers in attendance. That program lasted through 2014. And from 2001 to 2005, the Sundance Online Film Festival ran alongside the physical event, streaming a small collection of short films.

But the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday for a shortened seven-day run, will be its biggest venture with both.

“I want to be humble enough to understand what we learn by doing this grand experiment,” Jackson said in December. “I can’t see a world in which, as festival director, we wouldn’t want to have increased access to an online expression of the festival.”

At the same time, Jackson said, “I know I’m hungry to get back to Park City and those people, those audiences.”

Virtual premieres aren’t the same springboard

Two of last fall’s major film festivals, in Toronto and New York, turned into “hybrid” events with online screenings and limited in-person gatherings, said Eric Kohn, executive editor and chief critic for IndieWire, an online publication that covers the movie industry.

Some movies at those festivals had difficulty either generating publicity or finding distribution when they debuted virtually, Kohn said.

“Without the physical component, it’s not really a great marketing opportunity,” he said, because those films look a lot like the content big streaming distributors are already showing.

The exception among the fall festivals, Kohn said, was Venice, “the only kind of A-level festival that had a real traditional, physical event with a red carpet, a flashy jury headed by Cate Blanchett, and a winner, ‘Nomadland,’ that got that awards-season boost that these kinds of festivals often [give].”

Sundance’s challenge in an online format, Kohn said, is to continue to be “a discovery festival,” a launchpad for new movies and fresh talent, “which is primarily what Sundance has done well consistently over the years.”

[Read more: Here are 10 titles playing at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival likely to grab attention]

Online, he said, a breakout film “is still not going to make the same kind of noise that it would have before.”

Even movies that played in person in Park City at the 2020 festival had trouble reaching audiences because of the pandemic, he said. He cites “Minari,” the Korean-American immigrant drama that won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic competition.

“That was a movie that was primed to ride the wave of Sundance hype and critical enthusiasm to be a real awards player,” Kohn said. Films on such a campaign typically would be reintroduced to film audiences and critics in the fall festivals, like Toronto, Venice and New York.

Without the high-profile gatherings in Toronto and New York, Kohn said, “Minari” “just doesn’t seem to have that kind of momentum.”

On the other hand, another Sundance 2020 title, Garrett Bradley’s documentary “Time,” which chronicled a woman’s fight to get her husband released from prison, benefited from getting a distribution deal with Amazon, Kohn said. “It seems to be having a really strong life right into awards season.”

The unique energy of being together

All film festivals will want to return in person as soon it’s safe, Kohn predicts, even those that may continue some online offerings. “There’s something about site-specific events,” he said, “that cannot yet be replicated in our culture.”

And as the Sundance Film Festival continues to evolve, “it’s kind of hard to imagine Sundance giving up on Park City,” Kohn said, “because any other option would be competing with an incredibly dense market, no matter what.”

Its setting now gives it a unique draw, he added. “This idea of getting people into Main Street, where you can still have a luxurious experience, but at the same time you’ve got to wear snow boots, you’ve got to be in the thick of things. … That is a unique kind of energy.”

British filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, who will see his movie “Life in a Day 2020” premiere online at Sundance this year, said he will miss the experience he had in Park City with its prequel.

“Life in a Day 2020” is a YouTube-produced documentary showing life around the planet on July 25, 2020. Macdonald, whose credits include the mountaineering documentary “Touching the Void” and the drama “The Last King of Scotland,” created it using scenes taken from more than 300,000 clips submitted by people in 192 countries.

For his similar “Life in a Day,” which premiered at Sundance 2011, he shared the Eccles Center Theatre stage with 30 filmmakers who submitted video.

“It was a lovely kind of event,” he said, “unlike anything else I’d ever experienced in filmmaking — people flying in from the ends of the Earth, who had never met, who were all part of this.”