Sundance 2013: The wrap-up

January 25, 2013

Touchy Feely

I knew I had been at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival too long the day I was in the checkout line at the Fresh Market supermarket that’s in the same strip mall as the theaters where the bulk of the press screenings are.

The cashier rang up my purchase – a bottle of diet soda and a banana, as I recall – and told me my total. When I handed her the cash, she looked at me and said, “Oh – you’re back again.”

So, in more than one respect, I left Sundance just in time: I flew out of Salt Lake City yesterday (1/24/13) morning before 7 a.m. – luckily, because a freezing-rain storm blew in shortly afterward and closed the airport for most of the day.

It was kind of the perfect ending to what turned out to be a successful 2013 Sundance Film Festival for me.

My definition of success is probably different from other people, but then, so is my agenda. As I’ve probably mentioned in the past, though I attend Sundance (and Toronto) as a critic, I’m also there as a programmer, scouting for films for two film series that I produce and host.

So my brief is different from the bloggers and industry people who line up for the Press & Industry screenings at the Holiday Village multiplex in Park City. I’m not under pressure to be the first one to announce my opinion of the movie I’ve just seen on Twitter or Facebook. I don’t have to try to be the first reporter to announce that X movie has been purchased by Y distributor for Z dollars. And I don’t have an editor somewhere phoning or texting me to get my copy in before deadline or wondering why our competitor has some story that I don’t.

(This year, I met a young critic from Moscow who was having problems with deadlines because of the 11-hour time difference with his editor. He was on his first trip to Sundance – or to the U.S., for that matter – and said he constantly felt like he was playing catch-up to his publication, where his editors were long asleep by the time he finished his day.)

Instead, I go to the festivals, looking for films that might be right for the audience I serve – which means that I’m trying to find movies that:

a) I like (that’s a big filter, right there);

b) My audience will enjoy – or at least not push them too far out of their comfort zone (again, narrowing the selection); and,

c) Someone else (i.e., a distributor) will find worthy enough to buy the distribution rights, which means that it will eventually be released – and, hopefully, available for me to program.

In that respect, Sundance 2013 was a success for me. Of the 20 films I saw all or part of between late Saturday afternoon and Wednesday night, I would guess that at least a dozen either had distribution prior to the festival or found it at Sundance. That was about the number of films I saw that I would absolutely show to my film groups – a pretty high percentage, compared to some years, with a list that includes, among others, “Stoker,” “Concussion,” “A.C.O.D.,” “C.O.G.,” “Blue Caprice,” “In A World…” and “Stories We Tell.” Not that I’ll get everything I want – but at least I know what I want.


When friends hear I’m headed for or just returned from Sundance, they inevitably remark about how much fun it sounds, how glamorous – with the parties and the celebrities and the free food and drink. And, while there certainly are all of those things, I tend to avoid them, for a couple of reasons.

For one thing, I’m there to see movies – and while shmoozing is always helpful, it doesn’t really get done at the parties, for which mass e-vites are sent out. Even if you are on the list, if you’re not at these parties in the first 20 minutes, you need to have rugby skills to get near the bar and you practically have to stand next to the kitchen door to snatch an hors d’oeuvre as it heads out into the scrum.

Plus the travel time to and from the parties – most of which are in other parts of Park City than the press screenings – eats into what is already a full day and could cost you the chance to see a movie. And once you’re at the party, even if you find someone you know, you probably can’t hear what they’re saying over the inevitable background noise.

There are, of course, people who cover Sundance solely for the parties and nightlife. God bless them. I’ve been to too many of these gatherings to find them interesting in any way.


My Sundance is almost a monkish experience: I put my head down and go to movies, one after another, sometimes at press screenings, sometimes (if I get a ticket from a publicist or the press office) at one of the public screenings in another part of Park City. I come out of one and line up for the next – or run off to grab a bite to eat before getting back in line.

After four or five movies, it’s back to my room to write, until about midnight. Then to sleep – because I have to be up by 5:30 or 6 to edit what I’ve written and post it online. Then I hop into the shower, pack up my briefcase and hit the road back to Park City (this year, I rented a small condo, about five miles from town) by 8 a.m., in order to get in line for a 9 a.m. screening. Wash, rinse, repeat. The one morning that I started with a 10 a.m. screening, I actually felt kind of decadent.

There were other, less tangible things that made it a successful festival for me. For starters, I didn’t get shut out of any press screening that I tried to get into. And while you probably needed to be in line 30 or more minutes ahead of time for some of the more popular press screenings, the fact that I didn’t get to Park City until Saturday (the festival started Thursday, Jan. 17, and the crowd thinned a little more each day as the week went on) may have helped me preserve my record. But there was also luck involved: Wednesday afternoon, I was probably 40 people deep in the overflow line for the press screening of a comedy called “The Way, Way Back” (even though I arrived 25 minutes before it started) – and still was able to get a seat.

What else? I mostly found that the shuttle bus I needed to get where I was going (there are a half-dozen different routes for the free buses in Park City) always seemed to pull up just as I got to the bus stop – or to linger long enough for me to get aboard, even if I was a half-block away when it pulled up.

A little thing: Every press screening I attended started exactly on time. Even the public screenings came close to on-time starts, despite the need for a festival official to introduce the film and the filmmaker, who then talked briefly before beginning the film. Punctuality, as Paul Newman once told me, is the courtesy of kings.

And (and this is certainly no doing of the festival crew) the weather was decent all week. It never snowed (until that freezing rain as I left) and, while it was very cold once the sun went behind the mountain in the afternoon (or when I was starting my car at 7:45 a.m.), the clean, dry roads and sidewalks had a distinct impact on the comfort and stress levels.

As I noted previously, it’s easy to program your own personal festival selections around a theme. But it would be silly, in a festival with over 300 films, to suggest that there was an overall theme other than the usual one: to find the best new films and present them for public appreciation.

In that respect, the Sundance Film Festival still seems to be going strong.

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