Founded by Robert Redford in 1981, Sundance is now one of the biggest, most celebrated film festivals in the world. And, as with all huge festivals, a visit to its Utah homebase requires some prep time, a game plan, and a bit of insider knowledge: I embarked on my first visit to the festival last week with zero out of three. Here are a few things I learnt (the hard way) while I was there.
(And when you’re finished reading this, check out The Lowdown on Park City - my edit of the best places to eat, drink, sleep and shop.)
Get your bearings
Until about 12 hours before I flew to Sundance, I had the impression it was held entirely in Salt Lake City. Um, not the case. The screenings are spread across a multitude of venues in various locations, but the festival primarily takes place in Park City; a small, postcard-pretty town about forty minutes’ drive from Utah’s capital. Who knew?! (Everyone but me).
Do your research
There are hundreds of films and shorts screening during Sundance, so it’s worth putting in several hours of research time to work out what you actually want to see. Fail to do this and you may end up in a depressing political documentary that makes you want to gouge your eyes out. And as you’ll probably be seated a few feet from the director, walking out is not an option.
Look into a Lodge
Needless to stay, hotels in the area are oversubscribed and overpriced. The most economical option is to gather a big group and rent a house in one of the many ski resorts nestled in the picturesque valleys surrounding the city. Failing that Air BnB has a load of great options, as always. Good old Air BnB, eh?
Sort out your pass
They’re hugely expensive and they sell out fast, but if you’re serious about Sundance then you need a proper pass. Available at several different price points (which offer varying levels of access), the pass will enable you see what you what you want to see, when you want to see it.
Prepare to Wait
If you’ve failed to sort out a pass then there is the possibility of buying tickets last minute. But with almost 50,000 attendees, the queues rival the wait for the Portaloo at Glastonbury. Get to screening venues more than two hours before the film starts in order to bag a place on the waitlist, or get up ridiculously early to camp outside the Main Box Office for a chance to buy one of the small selection of tickets that are released each day. Either way, patience will be required.
Although it was surprisingly mild when we visited, temperatures in Park City can drop to well below freezing. Make sure no inch of skin is uncovered by some sort of thermal/lined/padded/fleece material. And don’t forget your sunglasses – that snow is blinding.
Bring some ‘sensible’ shoes
Once the crowds descend, the traffic around Park City grinds to a maddening halt. You’ll probably be forcibly ejected from your ride by an angry cab driver, so make sure you’re wearing some sort of snow boot situation to cope with the precarious trudge from cinema, to bar, to bus stop, and back. Slipping on ice is never fun (unless you’re one watching it happen).
Take some $$$$$
According to one resident we got chatting to in the nail salon (yeah, we went to a nail salon at Sundance - don’t judge), Park City has its ‘winter prices for skiers, summer prices for locals, and January prices for Sundance’. I can believe that. The restaurants in Park City are OK, but certainly do not warrant the astronomical prices or cover charge that many impose on diners and drinkers alike. Buy food at the supermarket to fuel up in your hotel, or be prepared to wince at your credit card bill once you get home.
Avoid the starspotters
Sundance attracts a curious mix of rising independent filmmakers, very famous actors, and voracious, insatiable celeb-spotters. The latter are as instantly recognisable as the A-listers - they’re the ones blocking the pavement while they stop to bombard passing celebs. There’s no avoiding them, so just take a deep breath, bypass their flashing iPhones and try to retain your faith in modern humanity.
Pre-Game, Party, Post-Game
After all that cultural enrichment, you may want to let your hair down and get ignorant to some 2 Chainz. That’s totally natural. Remember, though, that for most of the year, Park City is just a small, sleepy ski resort: Its venues are generally not equipped to accommodate the drunken throngs they attract every January. Arrive at bars and clubs early and be ready to wait in line everywhere you go. Or stay at home, get drunk on cheap red wine, and get so tipsy that you can’t feel the cold when you go outside to play in the snow. Just make sure you avoid the yellow stuff, ok?