Sundance Technology Director says every screening must run flawlessly |

Sundance Technology Director says every screening must run flawlessly

Sundance Film Festival Technical Director Holden Payne takes a short break while setting up a free outdoor screening of the Sundance documentary Being Evel in Park City last summer. Photo by Jake Shane/Park Record

For a new filmmaker at Sundance it all comes down to this moment. Every seat in the theater is filled, the lights have gone from dim to dark and a palpable hush has fallen over what many would characterize as the most discerning movie audience in the world. The projector begins to whir and, in many cases, the director sees his life’s work on the big screen for the very first time.

Relax. Holden Payne’s got your back.

As Technical Director of Exhibition and Projection, Payne knows that a technical glitch has the potential to make or break a budding filmmaker’s career.

"We cannot have a failure. When we are premiering their film, it is important to me that it is exactly the film they want it to be," he said.

Payne, a 15-year veteran of the Seattle Film Festival, joined the Sundance crew three years ago. During the festival he is in charge of ensuring that over 700 screenings in more than 30 locations run flawlessly.

He has been a projectionist for nearly 30 decades and has done everything from spooling film onto reels and pushing popcorn at a historic movie palace in Seattle to installing the latest digital projection equipment in Park City.

"I was 17 years old when I got a job in a movie theater and I’ve been doing it ever since," he says with a wistful, whiskers-encircled grin.

Through all of the changes, though, Payne says his love of movies has never wavered.

Growing up in Alaska, he remembers when his parents bought the family’s first VCR.

"Up in Alaska, there was not a lot going on outside so my friends and I voraciously consumed movies. We were enamored with directors like Scorsese, Jean-Luc Godard and Terry Gilliam," Payne said.

Film is now a thing of the past at Sundance. According to Payne, last year marked a poignant turning point. It was the first time the festival slate was entirely digital.

"Last year was the first time we did not show a single 35mm print," he said, with a tinge of nostalgia.

Nevertheless, he believes the experience of seeing a film in a theater still resonates.

"I love experiencing film in a theater. There is something about being together with your community – a drama feels more dramatic, a comedy is funnier. Everyone wants to put a death nail in movies, but there is something that is still compelling about sitting in a theater full of people. There is a connection to the community of people you are seeing it with."

That sentiment is amplified at festivals. According to Payne, "People even like standing in line talking about the films."

And even without celluloid, he is excited about the potential of expanding those experiences with new technology.

"I really like New Frontier and it will be exciting to see what happens with virtual reality," he said, adding that he is also impressed with the new immersive sound systems. "We have such an amazing tech crew. I am amazed with the technical processes we have now."

And as the Sundance Institute and its flagship festival have grown, so has Payne’s job. He now handles technical demands for the Institute’s growing slate of filmmaker labs, and has worked at the newly-added events in Los Angeles and London.

Which suits this lifetime film lover to a T.

"I am really proud of what we do here. I feel so privileged to work for an organization that lives up to its mission to work with filmmakers and develop an audience for them."

After unloading a truck full of heavy projection for a free community screening in City Park last summer, the tee-shirt-and-sandal-clad technical director for, arguably, one of the most glamorous festivals on the global film circuit, leaned on the tailgate and declared, "I love my job."

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