As reimagined Sundance opens, festival leader is grateful the show will go on
Jackson felt responsibility to move forward
Sundance Film Festival 2021 will be like no other.
Instead of screenings in theaters throughout town and panel discussions with filmmakers, composers and actors in the Filmmaker’s Lodge on Main Street, programming for the festival, which starts Thursday, will be virtual.
Festival organizers, under the leadership of new Festival Director Tabitha Jackson, decided to reimagine the festival, centered around an online platform, due to the coronavirus concerns last spring.
“The question was to what extent could we gather live and in person, and that is where we needed to be at our most flexible and responsive right up until the last moment,” Jackson said in an email question-and-answer exchange with The Park Record. “As we continued to keep close tabs on the rising rates of COVID-19 in Utah, we made the difficult decision in December to reduce our in-person Festival footprint in Park City this year.”
Jackson emphasized that the virtual festival is only a “temporary solution for a unique year.”
“Utah is, and always, will be our home,” she said. “We’re hoping that gathering online together this year will ensure that we can return to Park City, in safety and in health, in 2022.”
Moving to a virtual platform wasn’t as difficult as it could have been, according to Jackson.
Sundance Institute, the nonprofit that oversees the festival, used cues from its virtual Sundance Co//ab program, which launched when the pandemic hit.
Sundance Co//ab packaged all of the institute’s 2020 summer filmmaking labs online as webinars, member question-and-answer gatherings and masterclasses.
“We are so grateful for the lessons we’ve been able to take from Sundance Co//ab, and translate (them) into reimagining our Festival online — not in just how to build and experience creative community together in a digital space, but also the nuts and bolts of operating online,” Jackson said.
Jackson praised her staff for making the pivot possible.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that we could truly not have pulled this off without their creative spirit, their flexibility and willingness to take risks and shift gears,” she said. “I’m in awe of them, and so grateful for their tireless work in getting us to this point. And I can’t wait for them to see that work come into reality when the festival kicks off.”
Finding a way to put on the festival against the backdrop of a pandemic and an economic downturn was no small task, Jackson said.
“We had to take apart this festival, which is a quintessential live and in person event, and give it a primarily digital home which we have built from scratch,” she said. “Nothing about that process was easy except for the clarity of our purpose to support independent voices.”
With that in mind, Jackson also wondered how filmmakers would react to the new format.
“We weren’t sure what to expect when we opened our film submissions in April, but the crop of submissions was incredibly strong, despite shifting production timelines or release plans,” she said. “Overwhelmingly, our artists understood and empathized with the position we were in this year. They were relieved that we were going ahead, excited by the ambition of our plans, and definitely looking forward to us being back in Park City as soon as we can. It’s so exciting that there’s so much new work out there.”
The next hurdle, according to Jackson, was whether or not any one would want to attend the online screenings and panel discussions.
“Thankfully our pass and ticket sales have been very brisk,” she said. “So now the last hurdle will be getting through the festival without a global power outage.”
As the Sundance Film Festival, which will celebrate 36 years, readies to open, Jackson feels a keen sense of duty to bring the work of independent artists to audiences as the festival’s new director.
“Although it is fair to say that I hadn’t anticipated the challenges of 2020 when I stepped into this role as the Director of the Sundance Film Festival early last year, what I did know was that the first step towards charting a course forward in a truly unimaginable year was to look to our roots,” she said. “Of course it was our founder, Robert Redford, who gave me the best advice (and said), ‘I invite you to think not just outside the box, but as if the box never existed.’ That really freed us all up to think more expansively and less fearfully about how to meet the moment.”
Jackson is looking forward to seeing how artists respond to the audiences’ reactions to their works.
“There is nothing more incredible than that moment,” she said. “The films in the lineup this year are a reflection of the current cultural moment. The new narratives we’re called to experience and examine our identities as individuals and as communities. (And) the drive to understand one another and communicate across divisions is crucial and urgent.”
When: Thursday, Jan. 28, to Wednesday, Feb. 3
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