Sundance scene in Park City: Empty rooms, sunken sales replace Hollywood stars, crowded theaters
The opening Saturday looked nothing like a typical festival around the community
A lone maintenance worker at the Gateway Center in Old Town slowly pushes a motorized floor cleaner across the tile at 12:45 p.m. on Saturday, the dull hum of the machine the only sound in a common area that is otherwise empty at this moment.
There are just a few walk-in businesses inside the building alongside the office spaces for which it is better known. It is a block off Main Street but has always seemed to be separated, both in physical distance and in ambiance, from the shopping, dining and entertainment strip.
Some of the interior windows and glass doors are covered with images. One centers on a scene of Mount Timpanogos, the hulking mountain south of Park City. Another shows a filmmaking crew. Both are closely associated with Sundance and hint at the importance of this location during any other January.
There is little activity at the Gateway Center at midday on a typical Saturday. But the first Saturday of the Sundance Film Festival, which is today, would normally be the single most rollicking day of the year in Park City. And the Gateway Center would be one of the places jammed with festival-goers. Sundance operates the main box office inside the building. It is where independent-film lovers arrive each day of the festival, holding out a last gasp of hope that there is a prized ticket available to a star-studded premiere or to a foreign flick that U.S. audiences may never again have an opportunity to see in a theater.
Thousands of feet would ordinarily move across the floor the worker is cleaning today. The Sundance-goers would briskly walk inside, check ticket availability, intensely study the film guide to learn if they even want to see a movie that is available and, if so, enter the line to purchase a ticket. They would mill around in the common area, trading stories about the films they saw, the parties that kept them out late and their plans for the day.
The contrast between what would be expected at the Gateway Center on the first Saturday of Sundance and what is actually transpiring this day is a dramatic illustration of the impacts of the continued spread of the novel coronavirus a year after the first case was confirmed in the U.S. Park City has economically outperformed since the early months of the crisis, but Sundance is an especially profitable period for numerous businesses across multiple sectors. The prospects seem bleak for any sort of Sundance-related jump in sales at the start of a festival that is unfolding in an online platform rather than in person in Park City.
Colter Wade and his wife own The Back Door Deli at the Gateway Center and on Saturday he talks of what he would see outside the restaurant during this hour of a previous Sundance.
“It looks like Times Square,” he says. “A hundred people would walk by in a minute or less.”
The deli’s sales figures today are like they are on a regular Saturday, according to Wade. The numbers, though, are off by up to 90% from the first Saturday of previous festivals, he says, explaining the sales during a typical Sundance could generate enough monies to cover three months of lease payments on the space.
“It’s just a whole year,” he says about the ongoing impact of the pandemic. “We’re not even shocked anymore.”
A radically altered festival
Sundance in 2020 ended as it normally would, with the award winners shining on the screens on the final day and crews dismantling the theaters, the main box office and other temporary installations. As the final days of Sundance approached last year, the organizers held what was called the Imagined Futures bonfire in Old Town. It was designed to ignite the end of the festival and allow Sundance-goers to gather in a midwinter glow to consider the days and months ahead. Hundreds of people found time during the busy festival to watch as stacks of wooden pallets, adorned with the Sundance crowd’s written wishes for the future, were set ablaze. The flames climbed higher as the pallets quickly burned. Someone’s message for “World Peace” was engulfed as one of the pallets succumbed to the fire, as were messages hoping for “Trump’s impeachment” and “No more billionaires.” Two other wishes, for “prosperity” and “health,” apparently written by the same person, also were put into the flames in the weeks before the sickness threatened each of those ideals.
When the festival in 2020 closed on Feb. 2, someone could not have imagined the future that unfolded in the ensuing 11 months. Sundance was held last year before the spread of the coronavirus became a health crisis and then the worst pandemic in a century. It was just weeks before coronavirus deaths in the U.S. began to mount and the shutdowns across the U.S. — including the early end of the 2019-2020 ski season in Park City — devastated the economy.
It was apparent by the summer that Sundance would not be held in the usual manner in early 2021. The sickness continued to spread into the period when Sundance would be finalizing the blueprints for the following year’s festival in Park City. Organizers instead were readying an idea for a radically altered festival in 2021 with the expectation that the coronavirus would not be contained by January.
Sundance in June unveiled a concept for the festival that called for a base in Park City with screening rooms across the U.S., allowing people to stay in their own communities instead of traveling to Park City. The festival at that time was envisioned as a live event but one that would also rely heavily on a digital platform to screen films. It was understood that any of the plans were dependent on the health situation as the Sundance dates approached, but, at the time, it appeared there would be a festival of some sort in Park City.
A little more than a month later, Sundance essentially acknowledged the festival in 2021 would not be staged as had been envisioned. The organizers approached City Hall with scaled-back plans, including reducing the length of the festival from the normal 11 days to seven days. Sundance also wanted the dates shifted, from the original Jan. 21-31 to Jan. 28-Feb. 3. The revised dates were, in part, meant to discourage the possibility of a large gathering to mark the presidential inauguration four years after a crowd estimated at up to 9,000 people marched in opposition as Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office. Sundance, meanwhile, asked City Hall to suspend for one year a requirement that 70% of the festival be staged in Park City and surrounding Summit County, something that was needed to allow the screenings elsewhere in the U.S. Park City leaders in August approved the one-year alterations, five months before the scheduled start of Sundance.
The preparations continued into the fall, alongside escalating coronavirus cases in the U.S., before Sundance in early December indicated most of the festival programming would be moved online. Sundance under the early-December plan would operate The Ray theater at Holiday Village as the only live venue in Park City or the Snyderville Basin, scheduling up to three screenings per day with social distancing required of the audience and cleanings between the films. It was anticipated between 25 and 50 people would be allowed at each screening, in a room that normally seats 532 for a Sundance film.
Sundance in late December, though, dropped The Ray, citing the public health situation. The removal of The Ray left little to visibly mark Sundance in Park City, the location of the festival since the 1980s. There are festival banners on Main Street and the marquee at the Egyptian Theatre, a Sundance venue since the early days, advertises the online platform, offering at least some evidence in the community of what is occurring on computer screens this year rather than inside screening rooms.
“Even though we have been separated, we’re still bound together. We dream under the same sky, filled with stardust. And that same stardust formed the deserts of Utah, our festival home,” Sundance founder Robert Redford said in narrating the event’s opening this year.
‘Isn’t this where Sundance is?’
The sidewalk on the 500 block of Main Street, just uphill from the Heber Avenue intersection, is essentially quiet at 1 p.m. on Saturday. There are pedestrians, only some wearing masks, moving up and down as they glance into the shops, but it cannot be considered crowded. Traffic seems to be flowing without issue at the intersection.
The location during this hour provides another stark contrast between 2021 and earlier editions of Sundance. On the first Saturday of Sundance in 2020, at about the same time, the crowd was large enough that it could not be contained on the sidewalk. Some appeared to be in line for a function, others were attempting to press through the shoulder-to-shoulder mass of people, while still others seemed to have just stopped to talk. Metal barricades were in place while traffic-control personnel and police officers, outfitted in brightly colored safety vests, were stationed nearby to protect pedestrians or direct traffic. The Festival Co-Op, showcasing Sundance sponsors, invited people inside. Canon, a Sundance sponsor, separately temporarily leased space nearby, a marketing opportunity for the camera maker with such an influential Hollywood crowd in Park City.
The restaurants along Main Street on Saturday are open this year to regular customers when many would otherwise be closed for private functions like celebrity-heavy parties marking a film premiere. Main Street stores and galleries also remain open without the opportunity to enter into high-dollar agreements with corporate interests that usually arrive in Park City for Sundance. The corporations see the festival as a desirable location to plug a wide range of products that can include clothes, footwear and filmmaking equipment. People are only occasionally spotted walking between Main Street and the Old Town transit center, which is usually a hub for the Sundance transit routes and the location where buses packed with festival crowds depart and arrive into the late-night hours.
It is a similar scenario throughout Park City on Saturday. There is just scattered traffic on a day when the usual festival backups, some of the most terrible of the year, have become part of Sundance lore. Outside of the Main Street core, at a little bit before 3 p.m., there are just a few people in the lobby of the Sheraton Park City on Sidewinder Drive, the hotel where festival headquarters has been located each January for years. It could be frenetic here on the afternoon of the opening Saturday of any other Sundance, as filmmakers, journalists, sponsors and festival staffers converge on the space. At a little bit after 3 p.m., meanwhile, the gymnasium at the Park City Municipal Athletic & Recreation Center is available to the regular customers. Sundance would ordinarily turn the space into a temporary screening room with seating for 500-plus audience members
At Olive & Tweed, a women’s store that is close to the 2020 locales of the Festival Co-Op and Canon, there are just a few people stopping in during the middle of the day on Saturday. Renee Podber, the manager, describes the day as “underwhelming” when put against a previous opening Saturday of Sundance, when the crowds are in what she calls a “cheerful mood.” The wives and girlfriends of the Sundance-goers would usually stop in, she says, boosting sales. The store in the past would schedule three people to work overlapping hours on the first Saturday of Sundance. She is the only staffer working on Saturday this year, though. Podber later says the sales numbers were off a little more than 50% on Saturday from a typical first Saturday of Sundance.
“People ask me all the time. ‘Isn’t this where Sundance is?’” she says before describing her answer to the inquiries. “‘Usually. Under different circumstances.’”
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