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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Advice on Attending the Sundance Film Festival

I am far from a Sundance guru, but I've been a few times in the past, and recently a couple of friends have asked for advice about 'doing Sundance.' I think Sundance somehow gives off an aura of exclusivity -- like you need to be invited to attend. But lots of people who are simply film lovers go -- and most of them probably have a better time than the filmmakers and industry folks who are frantically trying to meet the right people and seal deals. So here is a distillation of what little I know about going to Sundance, held every January in beautiful Park City, Utah.

The only two real challenges you'll face in planning to attend Sundance are: getting tickets to movies you want to see, and finding a place to stay. Your odds of succeeding at both challenges increase if you attend the second half of the festival, instead of the first. (The second half in 2007 is roughly January 24-28.) But being there for the opening weekend has its charms, too: the chances of bumping into a celeb on Main Street are much better.

Getting Tickets

If you want to see the most movies with the minimal amount of time invested standing in line, the thing to do is buy tickets online before you arrive. (Apparently, the absolute best way to get tickets is to live in Utah, or know someone who does, and can buy them at the box office as soon as they go on sale. Info on that avenue is here.) To do that, you need to register before January 4, 2006 on the Sundance site. You'll then get information by e-mail about when you can return to the site to purchase your tickets. (They hold a lottery, and assign each person a window of time on a specific day when they can buy tickets. Obviously, the earlier your window, the better chance you'll have at getting tickets.

Before your time arrives, have a look at the online film guide to see what you're most interested. It helps to have a long list of stuff you'd be willing to see, as many of your first choices will likely be sold out by the time you're allowed to buy tix on the Web. (There may be a way to get the printed film guide in advance of buying tickets, but I'm not aware of it. The online film guide is kind of a pain to use.)

Sundance offers a number of special passes that will get you in to see movies, but most are pretty expensive. Two worth considering, though, are the Adrenaline Pass ($400), which gets you into any movie playing before 10 a.m. or after 10 p.m., and the Awards Weekend Pass ($300), which gets you into any screenings on the festival's final weekend. This is when all of the films that have won awards get an additional screening, so you'll see the cream of the crop. (Unfortunately, both of these passes are sold out already for the 2007 fest.)

Even if you don't have a single ticket when you arrive in Park City, though, don't fret. You have four options:

    1. You can go to any venue, for any screening, and wait in the "Stand-By" line. (They've usually got a nice heated tent for you to hang out in.) If you're among the first ten or twenty people in line, you'll most likely get in. Unfortunately, you have to arrive pretty early to be in the front of the line. If you do this, try it at off times, and at the bigger venues (in order, Eccles, Racquet Club, Library Center, Prospector Square. Don't do it at the Holiday Village, a multiplex which has the smallest auditoriums.) Sometimes, if you are in the stand-by line, someone who is trying to sell an extra ticket or two will show up. If they do, cough up the cash quickly, before someone else does. People almost always sell tix at face value, and I've never heard of anyone buying a counterfeit ticket at Sundance; honesty prevails.

    2. You can go to the Park City box office early in the morning and line up to buy day-of-show tickets. There's a place to hang out indoors and drink your coffee; people will already be there most days by 7 a.m., even though the box office doesn't open until 8 a.m.

    3. Aside from the main Sundance Film Festival, there are lots of other screenings that take place in Park City. Some are organized by individual filmmakers trying to drum up interest in their movies -- these you'll find out about when someone hands you a flyer on Main Street, or on one of the town's bulletin boards. Then, there's SlamDance, the Park City Music Film Festival, X-Dance, and TromaDance. There's usually something good at each of those, except for TromaDance, which prides itself on being so bad it's good.

    4. Check Craigslist. Sometimes, people in Park City are offering tickets at the last minute, and can meet you to make the exchange.


Getting There

SLC is the airport you want to get to. Conveniently, it's a Delta hub, and also served by Southwest. Even JetBlue flies there, from JFK in New York and Long Beach in Southern California.

Getting Around

Having a rental car in Park City is totally optional. There is a great shuttle bus that will take you around town to all the screening venues. Walking is an option, too. And there are a bunch of shuttle services (like All Resort Express and Park City Shuttle that will bounce you back and forth from the airport in SLC to your Park City accommodations. Meeting people on the shuttle vans from the airport is a great part of the festival social experience -- and a great way to find out about parties, or even score free tickets to a screening. And the in-town shuttle routes are generally crammed with people -- you'll inevitably get into conversations about which movies are worth catching, and which ones to avoid. Sometimes people have tickets to trade or sell too, if they can't make it to a particular screening.

Lodging

The ideal lodging is something that will enable you to walk to Main Street, and is also close to a shuttle stop. Let those two things be your guides. If you're a skier, you may prefer to be at one of the slopeside hotels (Marriott MountainSide is very good), which are a bit more of a hike to Main Street. One good place to start is the Park City Chamber of Commerce. Craigslist is another good source, especially if you're looking to rent a house, or looking for someone who has an extra room for you in a house they've already rented. CyberRentals and VRBO are also good if you're looking to rent a house or condo. Here's the official Sundance lodging page.

Free Stuff

There's always a fun, free outdoor concert at the start of the festival on Main Street. This year, it's on Thursday, January 25th. Often, festival sponsors have tents and storefronts where you can go in and hang out, whether you are a bigwig or not. Don't be afraid to ask the guys at the door. There are two really great free venues where you can see panel discussions and other talks: one is the Film Center, which focuses on new technologies and cool video art installations, and the other is the Sundance House. See the schedule for info on events at those places.

You might also try swinging by Dolly's Bookstore on Main Street; often, there are filmmakers who've written books or movie critics like Roger Ebert doing signings there.

If You Ski or Ride

The ski areas are generally pretty uncrowded during the festival. One deal to take advantage of is Quick Start, which offers you a free lift ticket, no strings attached, on the day that you arrive in Utah. Just register on the Web site, and print out the voucher. Bring the voucher and your airline boarding pass to a ticket window at the Park City Mountain Resort, The Canyons, or Deer Valley, and they'll give you a free pass good for the rest of the day. If you are a snowboarder (like me), or have one in your group, don't bother going to Deer Valley; the resort is skiers-only.

Venues

Assuming you are staying in Park City and don't have a car, there are a few screening venues you probably don't want to buy tickets to (just because they're tough and time-consuming to get to): the Salt Lake City venues (Broadway, Tower, and Rose Wagner Center), Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden (not to be confused with the Egyptian in Park City, which is festival venue that's easy to get to), and the screening room at the Sundance Resort. That said, I'm sure going to movies in Salt Lake City and Ogden is great -- it's certainly easier to get tickets. My only experience at the venues outside of Park City was in going to see a an evening screening at the Sundance Resort a few years back. We had a rental car, and the drive there was quite nice. At dinner, Robert Redford stopped by the table next to us for a long chat. It was fun to walk around the resort, and have a drink at the Sundance Owl Bar. The screening venue was really laid back and comfortable. But the hour-plus drive back to Park City at the end of the night was kind of a bummer. (There is, however, a shuttle that will take you between Park City and the Sundance Resort for $15 each way.)

Finding Out What's Happening

Pick up the daily newspaper the festival publishes. But also, ask everyone you encounter what movies they've seen, what events and parties they know about, which celebs they've bumped into.

Volunteering

One way to be part of the festival, and get in to see a few movies for free, is to volunteer. (You also usually get a snazzy Sundance parka and hat.) Volunteers are usually chosen and placed in December.

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