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Memphis Flyer Sundance Journal

By Ken Hall

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  Up and down the sidewalks and in and out of theatres and hotel lobbies, there is a fast-paced flow of film-industry people with cell phones permanently attached to ears jockeying past promoters laden with armloads of posters and rolls of tape. Every available space – windows, telephone poles, newspapers, boxes, even bathroom stall doors – are blanketed and re-blanketed with posters and handbills. From four-color slick posters to grungy photocopied sheets, the layers get deeper and more colorful by the hour. The occasional higher-budget film may have street workers handing out anything from lip balm to hats. The counter-festival promoters – Park City now hosts the No Dance, the Lap Dance, and the Slam Dance alternative, neo-underground festivals – keenly size up passersby to hand out flyers to a selected few. What constitutes the cognoscenti for them is hard to say.

Oh, yes, and there are movies too. Lots of them. English-language or subtitled. Comedy or tearjerker. Commercial offerings or documentaries and art films. It’s all there. You can see as many as you want, if you know the system.

Many people seem unaware that the Sundance Film Festival is open to the public. It is. The trick is to make it work for you, given several variables. The festival runs for nine days. Each day an average of 50 films are screened plus a few short films that precede some of the feature films. There are eight screens in Park City, two in Salt Lake City, and one in Ogden. After reviewing a list of films (the festival mails out a guide) and making a list of your top choices, you must determine which ones you can see throughout any given day according to the times they are shown and the proximity of the theatres. It is a difficult task to leave a 3:30 p.m. screening in Park City and make it to a 6 p.m. screening in Salt Lake. While on paper there is a 50-minute interval between the two, traffic in snowy conditions and the occasional projection technical difficulty can whittle that interval down to mere minutes. And it is important for ticket holders to arrive 15 minutes early to guarantee admission.

Did I mention the tickets? Like any movie, you need tickets. While these are priced from $7 to $10, they are very difficult to get. Some festival-goers don’t even try. If you are inclined to try, you simply make up your grid of films that you want to see and call the festival box office to reserve tickets. This year tickets went on sale to the public on January 11th, a mere 11 days before the festival. With 15,000 festivalgoers vying for a finite number of tickets and almost all vying for the “hot” ticket (this year it was Robert Altman’s Cookie’s Fortune), the box-office phone lines are near the melting point for days. It took us five days of dialing up several times a day to finally get through. It is advisable to have second and third choices for each time slot on your grid when you call in, because invariably most of the films are sold out by the time you get through. Even so, you can view films without having tickets in advance if you’re willing to go to the festival box office each morning at 8 a.m. in hopes of getting some tickets that have been returned. Or you can go to the theatre where your chosen film is being screened and wait in line anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. The typical theatre has lines of people with backpacks crammed full of reading material, snacks, and beverages (be wary of booze in Utah – ouch, the laws are strict).

Perhaps the most interesting part of the screening is the Q&As, which follows many documentaries and some feature films. Imagine spending two hours completely immersed in the worlds created by a set of actors/subjects and a director and then having 15 minutes or more in some cases to ask them just about anything that comes to mind. The questions vary greatly from technical details to lighting to the business of budgets to emotional preparations for roles. It’s like having someone step out of your television set at the end of a sitcom and visit with you for a short time. Many of the people fielding questions are just a few steps away from having been in the audience a few years before and are enormously gracious and attentive to questioners.

The most interesting part outside the screening is meeting other festivalgoers. There are aspiring filmmakers, actors, and directors with films showing, industry people (fairly inaccessible as far as we could tell), producers of other film festivals, fans and buffs, and civilians who may really like movies and/or found the snow in Park City somehow uninviting that particular day. If you can find lodgings in Park City – veteran festivalgoers suggested booking rooms as early as August – your chances for interaction and conversation are far greater than if you stay in Salt Lake City, which is 30 to 40 minutes away by car. The Park City residents – all 15,000 of them – are kind and helpful, and the whole atmosphere is somewhat casual. For instance, there are only three local cinemas in this small town, and of those three, only one has more than one screen. To flesh out the venues, a high-school auditorium is transformed into a theatre, as is a banquet hall at a local hotel. Scores of friendly volunteers meet, greet, direct, cajole, console, and otherwise discharge duties.

Whether you stay for one day or the entire nine days, the experience can be tiring – from scurrying about as well as from the emotional roller coasters of seeing so many different films. But it is the same kind of “good” tired that comes with any worthwhile accomplishment.

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