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Sundance '07

1/31/07

For some really strange reason, prior to six months ago, it never really occurred to me to go to the Sundance Film Festival.  I know that this will strike some people as strange, because I am such an insane movie fan...but, seriously, it just never crossed my mind that I would go to see movies at a festival like Sundance.  I mean, besides, I have the, ahem, badass, uh, Filmfest DC (or, maybe it's DC Filmfest), to look forward to every year, which is, oh boy, incredible.

Right.

My friends Sandi & Karl Rothman went to Sundance last year, and they came back with rave reviews, so when they pitched it to me to go on this trip, I lapped it up, mostly because 1) I can be suckered into traveling almost anywhere, and 2) someone else was going to do all of the planning.  This last part is rare for me, because usually, I make myself the trip organizer; knowing that all I had to do was write checks and show up, it didn't take much convincing to get me to join up on this puppy.

So, let's break it down--just how was the 2007 Sundance Film Festival?  Read on, mes amis...


Chapter 1: Mythbuster

The most prevalent question I faced before and after going to Sundance--located in Park City, Utah, about 40 minutes southeast of Salt Lake City--was this:

"How did you get tickets to go to Sundance?"

I have bad news for many of you: I just went to www.sundance.org and signed up to receive notice of when ticket packages would go on sale.  That's right--Joe Blow can go to Sundance, and judging from the people I met while on this trip, LOTS of Joe Blows go to Sundance.  Certainly, I met many movie critics, aspiring movie critics, organizers of other film festivals, aspiring wannabe film stars, folks in "the biz" and locals from other parts of Utah.  But, by and large, commoners make up the bulk of people who come to see films in Park City, and getting advance tickets to go see movies is surprisingly easy, ESPECIALLY if you are ready to drop a little coin.

I think I added my e-mail address to the Sundance listserve sometime in September, and from there, I just went ahead and opted for a big ticket package that allowed me to buy 20 movie tickets plus gain access to the end-of-festival party, for which I paid $650.  Then, in late December, Sundance sends you a program which has details on everything happening at the festival in January, including bios on each movie, information on each discussion panel, and a full timetable of when each movie will be shown plus a map of the different venues.  You get a lottery number which you will use to log onto the Sundance website to buy all of your tickets in early January, and then you are good to go.

Even if you don't opt for a big ticket package--and, in future years, I might not do that--you can still sign up to buy tickets before you arrive in Park City for $15 a ticket; beyond that, you could just roll up to Park City and get a wait list number two hours in front of each film and pay $10 to see movies that way.  The only real roadblock to seeing movies at Sundance is getting to Utah; flying into Salt Lake City is strangely VERY expensive, and getting a direct flight from anywhere east of the Mississippi can be a challenge, especially if you are on the East Coast.  I would have paid about $500 for my ticket had I not used points from an old credit card promotion.


Chapter 2: Utah

I have driven through Utah twice, on my way to and from San Francisco.  I had never stopped to stay on my previous journeys...but, even from the car, no one can deny the facts--Utah is one sexy MF.  Taking in the sights on the way from the SLC airport to Park City in a shared van, all you can do is soak up the beauty of it all...to wake up to a place like this only partially shames those like me who wake up to the backside of a condo subdivision next to a fucking McMall.

Going to Sundance isn't really about Utah in a way--I mean, come on, you are probably there to sit in a darkened theater most of the day--but in other ways, especially if you are a skier or a snowboarder, there are plenty of great reasons to hang out in Park City for a few days besides the flicks.  And, as a diverse haven for all kinds of people (at least during the festival), I was shocked at the number of minorities bouncing around town, between the number of blacks, Asians, Indians, and foreigners that fly in for a few days of movie fun.  For the ten days of the festival, it has got to be night and day different from what the locals experience during the normal skiing season...but, that makes it a beautiful place that feels more cosmopolitan than normal thanks to what the festival has to offer.

I also had a lot of folks ask me about crowds; wisely, our trip leadership thought it best to go during the second half of the festival, which is much quieter than the first five days of Sundance and as such, makes getting around town a snap and walking up and down Main Street a breeze.  Most of the theaters are still going to be packed all day, but in terms of walk-around commuter traffic, things weren't too bad while we were in town.  Those pictures you saw on TV of crowded streets were probably taken during the first weekend of the festival; the second weekend has a decent-sized crowd but nothing that will prevent you from making your way around town.

The only downside to Utah during the festival--cold.  Every local resident I spoke with was shocked at how little snow they had gotten this year; it hadn't snowed for the two weeks prior to my visit and it didn't snow once while I was there (five days).  Strangely, the cold issue only really hits you when the sun goes down; at night, temperatures were "warmer" than normal, usually getting into the single digits by midnight.  But, during the day, temps ranged between the high 20s and almost 40, which when sunny and with no wind feels like it is at least 20 degrees warmer than it is.  Seriously, during the day time, you could safely walk around with a light jacket, skull cap and a sweater and be all good in the hood.


Chapter 3: Accommodations

Sandi was in charge of locking down a place to stay; certainly in Park City and the immediate area, there are no shortage of nice places to hang out.  We ended up with a property that was a 3 BR/3 BA townhouse condo about two blocks uphill (and, I DO mean "uphill") from Main Street, which is where a lot of the Sundance sponsors, a main bus loop, festival box offices and a couple of the theaters are located; we paid about $3,500 for five nights split between six people (although the unit could have slept eight).  There were plenty of places more expensive than that, but then again, there were a few places cheaper than that, too.  We had access to a swank kitchen, nice living room, and bathrooms in each bedroom, so that's what we ended up with.

A lot of people we spoke to stayed farther away (or in the case of many locals, just stayed at home and drove into Park City to see some movies), and with lots of available parking in lots scattered around town right off the appropriate bus lines, you always have that option as well if you want to rent a car.  We really didn't need a car for the majority of our time in Park City, since the free buses run from 6 AM until 2:30 AM every day of the festival.  Parking at the lots in town isn't even as bad as I thought it would be--$10 in some lots, $15 in others, and you can keep your car there all day long.

Certainly, if I had been in the apartment long enough to appreciate it (see below), I would have been more likely to watch the 40" TV we had, hang out on the leather furniture or--if we had one--hang out in the hot tub each day.  Maybe next time around!


Chapter 4:  Prices at Sundance

I told many of you coming in that one of my only fears about going to Sundance was that being there would be like hanging out at Disney World; suddenly, your $1.50 bottle of Dasani would run you $10 at Sundance, that kind of shit.  I must say that I was horribly off in this regard; in fact, I would argue that being at Sundance is actually (gulp!) quite reasonable.

Although most of the theater venues don't allow food inside--one of the truly shocking things about Sundance, in addition to the fact that most of the "theaters" are converted rooms/halls at local buildings with a nice sound setup and digital projectors--you can buy food at most of the theaters for relatively cheap.  16-ounce sodas for $2; homemade sandwiches for $4 or $5; a bag of chips for a buck; popcorn for $3.  There's an Albertson's smack in the middle of the theater circuit in town, so if you have a kitchen at your accommodation, you can and should just pick up some groceries and cook food at home or pack a bag lunch (which is what Sandi and the rest of our crew did quite often).

There are certainly expensive restaurants in town if you want to blow some cash (and, from what I could muster, some of the best restaurants in the state reside in Park City); however, for every bougie tableclothed establishment, there's a Burger King or a Quiznos only a few minutes away.  Movie tickets ranged from $10-$15; hell, if you did the wait list at a theater, you were paying less than you would in New York City right now.  Drink prices weren't bad, either; in fact, at the end of festival bash, you could buy booze tickets for $4 a piece.

My total budget for the trip for one person was about $2,000 coming in, which broke down to:

  • Flight: $500 (turned out, this was free for me)

  • Travel to/from SLC:  $60 roundtrip (ride share)

  • Room:  $600

  • Ticket Package:  $650 (20 movies, plus access to some other places and the end-of-festival party)

  • Festival Gear:  $100 (actual: $25, for one t-shirt)

  • Food:  $150 (actual: about $70, half of which was groceries)

  • Nightlife:  $100 (actual: $0; I didn't go out because I was so exhausted from seeing flicks)

So, as it turned out, I only really spent about $1,400 on this trip, and next year, I will buy tickets in advance instead of doing a ticket package, which will save me about $300 next year.


Chapter 5:  Film Culture

I saw 19 films at Sundance this go-round; 12 features mixed between domestic and international distributors, 6 documentaries and one film that was a collection of eight animated short films.  (About a third of the features/docs had a live-action short film in front of them, all of which were fantastic.)  I had a ticket for a 20th film, but because I was seeing so many films I hadn't previously had time to hit a free arcade that was set up downtown in partnership with the team that was in town promoting the video game documentary "Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade", so I blew off one of my movies to hit the arcade.  Good move, indeed; Galaga, Ms. Pac Man, Commando and Defender still do the trick.

I hit all six of the major theaters in Park City; all of those were pretty cool, but only two of them are actual movie theaters...the rest are converted libraries, social clubs and a high school auditorium used by the Sundance folks to show movies.  You wouldn't want to watch "The Matrix" in theaters like this, but for indie flicks and documentaries, it isn't too much of a distraction.

Neither are the audiences, where Sundance is just a beautiful place for people that like to not hear teenagers trying to talk over the film, or assholes answering their cell phones during movies, or folks that get up a lot during the movie to hit the pisser.  No, friends--Sundance was the home of the perfect audience member, and for me, this was what my dad likes to call Hog Heaven: a movie lover hangin' out with 200 to a thousand movie lovers, all sitting there purely to enjoy the films in front of them.  Man, this was sweet.  It sounds silly, but it was what I imagined other top-flight athletes experience when they realize they are on the field with other peers who are also top-flight athletes...everyone is there for the same reason, but further, everyone belongs there, and there's just something very zen about it.

The organizers show films all day long, so between 8:30 AM and midnight, movies start all over Park City.  This is great for any number of reasons, but mostly for flexibility, because some folks could get a morning ski in, check out a couple of flicks, have dinner, then catch a midnight show; some people could play the early bird and see two morning shows then hang out at their ski lodge all day; others, like myself, could see an 8:30 AM, an 11:30 AM, a 3 PM, a 5:30 PM, an 8 PM and a midnight show, and then do it all again the next day.  (By the end of day three, I had seen 15 movies.  Yes, I have lost my mind.)

The films of Sundance were mostly good to great, but certainly, there were a few that felt surprisingly average given the fact that I was at Sundance.  The full rundown of what I saw is linked below, but my advice would be to wait to read the reviews until the movies themselves are about to come out...and I will certainly re-post those reviews when the movies are set to be released.  In many cases, the films that I saw at this year's festival had not even been purchased yet, so in many cases, these films might not even be released in the U.S. this year (or, in some cases, like "Life Support", some of these films might go straight to television, too).  Remember, "Alpha Dog" premiered at last year's festival, and it didn't come out for the masses until the first week of January 2007!


Chapter 6: Celebrity Sightings

In order, here are my celebrity sightings, which I define as seeing someone famous that was so close to you that you could reach out and touch them (and please, don't drool all at once):

  1. I ran into Leonard Maltin, the film critic for "Entertainment Tonight", on my first day in front of my first movie at the festival.  I briefly considered shoving my credential in his face to have him give me a Hancock before I realized that I wouldn't know how to thank him for keeping Mary Hart alive all of these years.

  2. My first night in Park City, I walked right by the guy that played the Drift King in the 2006 Oscar-winning classic "The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift."  If I was a betting man, I'm sure that none of you can immediately remember this character without first checking out IMDB or the film's website.  And, here's a shocker--he was really short in person.

  3. At the end-of-festival party (which was actually pretty damn cool, complete with a packed dance floor and unbelievably hot snow bunnies), Gloria Reuben from "ER" made eyes at me (Karl was standing next to me, so he can confirm this) before realizing that I was, in fact, no one special, at least to her.  Not that she was looking for mancandy that night; she was trailing someone who I assume was her boyfriend/husband, but make no mistake, Gloria Reuben has still got it, gents.

And, there we have it.  Certainly, there were other famous people nearby at the festival; at each screening, at least the director was still in town for all of the films I saw except for Steve Buscemi, who directed "Interview."  And, at the premiere of "Life Support", Queen Latifah, Jamie Foxx (who produced the film), Reuben, Wendell Pierce (from "The Wire") and the rest of the cast were all present for the first screening, which I happened to attend.

If you are really into celebrities, you need to go for the first few days of the festival; typically, each movie plays five or six times during the ten-day affair, and cast members usually only show up for the first of those screenings, hang out for a few days, then jetset back to their respective residences.  Between screenings, publicity shoots, promotional appearances at parties and interviews with fluff shows like "Access Hollywood", you should be able to ogle Justin Timberlake if you work hard enough early in the festival.  But, celebrity watching is just not for me, and tickets are much harder to get the first half of the festival, so I might be doomed just to never see those famous folks on future trips.  Sigh.


Chapter 7: Would I Go Back?

In a word, absofuckinglutely.  I thank Sandi and Karl for giving me the shot to hang out for a few days with them during this run; I felt kind of bad, because I really didn't see the rest of the folks we were staying with during the trip, due to my movie-watching schedule.

Because of this, I know that in the future, I will try to go for the full five days of the second half of the festival, but I'll make a few changes.  First, I'm going to see less movies.  Instead of trying to see 20 movies over four days then flying out of town, I'll try to do 12-15 movies next year and stay for a full five days.  Three movies a day is very doable and it will allow me to gather more free shit, which was coming out of the walls during this festival if you knew where to look for it.  (I only came home with light amounts of swag: three t-shirts, a couple of CDs, a Volkswagen tin, and some postcards.  I didn't even bother picking up the free swag at the Stella Artois tent--bottle openers, beer mugs, coasters--and, that's my bad.)

Further, I will treat this more as a vacation, instead of Karl's assertion that I was taking a working vacation, which was partially true.  Gunning around town to go from movie to movie was kind of surreal for me this time around, but next time, I'm going to chill out a bit.  I also want to hit up more of the nightlife next time, and try to loop in a couple of my college/high school friends in a future trip.  Exploring the area outside of Park City would be nice, too; maybe checking out a nice restaurant could be done as well.  And, keeping the last day of the festival open is a wise move--all of the award winning films from the festival are shown again that day, which would allow me to catch a couple of things that I missed in a more relaxed atmosphere.

Hopefully, a few of you will take me up on that...in the meantime, the alphabetical list of the 18 films that I saw (I didn't do a review of the animated shorts, although, trust me--good times):

Features:

"Angel-A"
"Bugmaster"
"Fido"
"The Good Life"
"Interview"
"King of California"
"Life Support"
"Red Road"
"The Signal"
"Teeth"
"Weapons"
"Year of the Fish"

Documentaries:

"Banished"
"Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade"
"Chicago 10"
"Girl 27"
"Protagonist"
"Welcome Europa"

 

Random Bellviews, courtesy of Bell and Longer Community Trust:

  • Two words--free fucking crab cakes: Opening Weekend

  • Women who love wearing those furry boots with their blue jeans:  $9.50 Show

  • Seeing 19 movies in just a few days...and writing reviews of all of those films during those same few days: Matinee

  • Walking directly uphill at 2 AM in 8 weather: Rental

  • Going back to work after spending five blissful days in Utah: Hard Vice

 

justin@bellviewmovies.com


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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/bellviewmovies.com except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09