"It Changed and Changed and Changed and Changed": How Sundance 2021 Pulled off Its Virtual Festival

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"It Changed and Changed and Changed and Changed": How Sundance 2021 Pulled off Its Virtual Festival

How does one of the world’s most iconic film festivals condense down into a neat digital package during the COVID-19 pandemic, without losing the experiential details that make the festival what it is in the first place? Nonstop planning, nonstop talking (via computer, so as to not spread droplets) and, yes, a little bit of luck—such as anyone could call the folks running the 2021 Sundance Film Festival “lucky” for having time and the long view on their side when planning this year’s iteration. Yes, lucky! How lucky indeed, to have your massive filmmaking industry event fall on the calendar after nearly a year of life under COVID, with so many other festivals in your wake having chosen to cancel! That’s the kind of luck you get from talking to a monkey’s paw.

2020 being the trash fire it was, and with 2021 proudly carrying that conflagration forward for the first days of its wretched lifespan, any turn of fate that even somewhat resembles “luck” is nothing to sneeze at, though maybe we should find a better word as it applies to Sundance ‘21. “I want to reframe it slightly,” said Tabitha Jackson, who took the job as Sundance Film Festival director last year after serving the Sundance Institute as director of the documentary film program for six years. “I think, yes, we were incredibly lucky that we were able to put on the full manifestation of Sundance.” Especially, she adds, since it was her predecessor John Cooper’s last year. At the same time, there lingered feelings of compassion and sadness for colleagues running festivals like Tribeca and SXSW, who—faced with much tighter timelines—couldn’t react and adapt to COVID in 2020 and had to shutter for the year.

Pulling off Sundance in 2021 with 2020 looming in the rearview meant dealing with complicated feelings, but the programmers charged with launching the 2021 festival had, after all, a whole year to figure out a solution to the coronavirus problem. Sort of. “It didn’t feel like we had a year,” Jackson pointed out. “Throughout the whole thing and right through the uprising for racial justice, the numbers changed all the time. Pretty much the last thing we did was cancel 70 drive-ins that we thought would happen in L.A. because we thought L.A. would, for some reason, be a better place to do it. And we had to cancel. So we never, ever had any firm ground upon which to plan.”

Charlie Reff Sextro, one of Sundance’s programmers, adds buttressing corroborative detail to Jackson’s chronicle of Sundance ‘21’s journey from a shrug emoji to a live event unfolding on folks’ screens—large and small—at home. “We started planning this year’s festival in the first weeks of April of last year, and so it changed a lot,” Sextro said. “After asking questions, and talking, and after the things that we explored, it changed and changed and changed and changed.”

It’s striking that both he and Jackson describe Sundance ‘21 in terms of evolution, as if the festival is a living, breathing entity, because ultimately that’s what it turned out to be. This was not an on-demand content drip. For Jackson, for Sextro, for the many other programmers and coordinators, this was about making a filmmaker experience, an audience experience and a collective space where those experiences collide.

Frankly, thinking back on the particulars of watching a film live, Sundance did make a convincing surrogate for an in-person festival this year: First, audience members would go into a waiting room with a chat function, where they could confab with one another ahead of the start time. Then, after each and every feature, the programmers would conduct live Q&As with the talent. Jackson fondly recalled the “perverse glee” she felt over how nervous filmmakers would get while sitting on-deck for post-screening conversation, because “it meant that it was a moment.” In fact, the more Sextro and Jackson talk about these online screenings, the more that the “online” part loses significance. “I’ve gone away from even describing what we’re doing as a virtual festival,” said Jackson. “It was a festival. It was a festival with real feelings, real work, real experiences, real encounters.”

Unsurprisingly, that was the intention all along: To open up that virtual environment so much that the barriers implied by the phrase simply dissolve, and to allow for meaningful exchanges between moviegoers and storytellers rather than anonymous interactions. “We had so many ambitious ideas,” Sextro said, “And even knowing if it was just going to become this purely virtual space, which it wasn’t…that we were really going to push that space as much as we could.”

Push they did. The sheer usability—the intuitive process for queuing up for and watching movies—made Sundance an exceptionally smooth experience for everybody: Viewers, the talent, press. Anxieties about streaming films without interruptions or service blips were allayed. On the other side of the festival, the business side, worries over selling movies—about making those crucial distribution deals—were similarly put to rest.

“Our whole team had concerns about what the landscape of selling our movie at a virtual Sundance would look like,” admitted Clint Bentley, director of the excellent Jockey. “We were worried the environment wouldn’t yield the same excitement that comes from everyone being in the same physical place.” But Sony Pictures Classics snapped up Jockey before it even premiered at the festival, which probably felt like nearly as big a win as the response the film met among audiences and critics.

On the topic of hits, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair writer/director Jane Schoenbrun considers the Sundance home viewing experience something of a blessing in disguise. Grant that we’re Sundancing at home because COVID happened. Also grant that one surefire way to soothe spirits under the many duresses COVID imposes on us is watching movies at home. “I was just talking with someone about how even our worst days during the pandemic have not felt like a total loss as long as we’ve watched at least one good movie by bedtime,” Schoenbrun said. Do they want to see their (one of a kind, very good, extremely disorienting) movie one day play on a big screen for a packed theater? Of course. But they were “just as excited for audiences to discover it alone in their living rooms,” which, given We’re All Going to the World’s Fair’s subject matter, actually may be a better venue for seeing the film for the first time. (It will be nice to exit a theater and see the thousand-yard stares plastered all over the rest of the audience, mind you.)

For Jackson, for Sextro and for every person who had a hand in Sundance’s conception and execution, that was the ultimate objective: Take the Sundance sensation out of Park City and disseminate it to movie-hungry viewers everywhere. “Beyond all the planning and everything we do, the thing that matters is the experience someone has when they’re watching a movie, what they’re going to take away from watching that movie,” Sextro said. “That’s the number one thing.” It’s the kind of feat Hercules would have up and walked away from if presented to him. Will Sundance do it again next year? Will other festivals learn from their example, as Sundance learned from the examples of fests like CPH: DOX (the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival)? Now that virtual festival platforms are available and, more than that, they’re good at sustaining a week-long event, can the film festival circuit put that genie back in the bottle?

Too many questions, and with so much data to comb through post-fest, it’s far too early to answer any of them. “We need to understand what just happened to understand what worked, and what didn’t work, and what is of value to keep,” Jackson said. In the meantime, the whole Sundance team deserves a lie-down, and the rest of us, too. All that matters is that Sundance happened. It worked. Whether this is the future of the fest, of all fests, is secondary. For one week, people disconnected by space, time zones and a certain virulent plague were able to find connection through the movies.


Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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