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February 7, 2006

Come for the goodies, stay for the glory of Sundance

If you followed mainstream press coverage of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah this past January, you probably got the impression that Sundance isn’t really about watching independent movies. I would have to reluctantly agree.

In the four days I spent covering the festival, I did see a fair number of movies, usually more than one a day. But I also spent a lot of time buying expensive hot beverages, trekking up and down Main Street, eating out, and exploring all the events my press pass could give me access to.

And of course, I did a lot of people-watching.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the festival is the type of people who attend. One glance down Main Street will tell you that there are three main categories into which Sundance attendees fall: people who make movies (and therefore have no money), people who want to support movies (and often have lots of money to do so), and people who spend $3,000 on a movie pass to come and be seen (who have no real interest in film—think face lifts and Paris Hilton).

There are also the members of the press, who can often be found relaxing in the Filmmaker’s Lounge, trying to score free swag (Paris gets bags of free designer jeans and all I get are some PBS gloves?) or attempting to talk their way into invitation-only parties. At least, that’s what I was doing.

Yet just about anyone can go to Sundance, provided they can find transportation and a place to stay. Most films sell wait list tickets at the door to anyone interested in attending. And if you really like the scene, consider volunteering. I made friends with several people who had taken the week off to work full-time at the festival and in return got free movie passes, accommodations, and the coveted official Sundance parka.

Most attendees spend their time away from the films, however, attending workshops, talks, parties, and live music performances (all sponsored by the festival). They might even head out of Park City’s downtown to go skiing or fishing. One word of advice: Skip the lines and overpriced lift tickets found at Park City’s ski hills and instead head over to Robert Redford’s resort (also named Sundance), which has $30 lift tickets and no crowds.

But back to the movies. Sundance works like this: Nearly 8,000 feature films, documentaries, and shorts are submitted to the festival, watched by various festival officials, and, if chosen, sorted into various categories. This year, there were 120 feature-length films (both documentary and fiction) and 73 shorts.

The feature-length films are divided into seven categories: documentary, dramatic, world cinema dramatic, world cinema documentary, premieres (films by already-established directors—which is why Nick Cassavetes’s Alpha Dog, starring Justin Timberlake, was there!), American spectrum (out-of-competition films), and frontier (experimental films). Films in competition are judged by the audience—who use individual ballots to rate each movie on a scale from 1 to 5—and also by three judges who see all the films in that category. At each screening, the filmmaker usually comes out and gives a brief introduction, and then answers questions from the audience following the film.

There are some hidden gems within the lucky few chosen for the festival. In my opinion, the standout was Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon, a documentary about a conflict over college scholarships in an Oregon timber town by first-time director Peter Richardson. No word on its theatrical release, but look for it on Netflix.

So even with the celebrities and their entourages, the ever-ringing cell phones and the overpriced lattes, I still left Sundance with the impression that there are people out there (and by people, I mean Los Angelenos) who really care about making great movies—provided they can leave with a distribution deal.