Sundance 2020: Sundance Institute execs, staffers, and volunteers share unforgettable moments from festivals over the years |

Sundance 2020: Sundance Institute execs, staffers, and volunteers share unforgettable moments from festivals over the years

Turns out that even the ultimate insiders can be starstruck.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg appeared in 'RBG' by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, an official selection of the Documentary Premiers program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Claudia Raschke

Betsy Wallace 
CFO and Managing Director, Sundance Institute 

During SFF 2018 we showed the documentary “RBG.” I was so excited to hear Ruth Bader Ginsberg was going to be on a panel and I tried every avenue to get a ticket. But to no avail! I whined to anyone that would listen. A day later, after our early morning Festival Operations meeting, my colleague Tina Graham leaned over and whispered that RBG was in the room. I thought Tina was tormenting me. All of a sudden, this wonderful older woman wearing oversized sunglasses floated past and asked for a cup of coffee and a breakfast burrito. We didn’t know whether to curtsy, salute, or shake her hand. What a glorious morning that was for me…to actually meet RBG! 
Charlie Sextro 
Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival 

The most electric screening I’ve attended was the “secret” world premiere screening of “Get Out” in 2017. Because I screen most of the program in rough-cut form at home by myself, I’ve never been more jealous of an audience — they were going to see such an incredible movie for the first time in that exciting environment. The crowd went crazy.  
Alyssa Ludwig 
Artist Relations Liaison, Sundance Institute 

In 2017 we screened “The Force” and the film’s sound designer, James LeBrecht, was in attendance at the Prospector Theater. Jim uses a power chair and the only way he could access the stage was through a side door, which was blocked by 2 feet of snow. I had to relay the news to Jim and the film team that he wouldn’t be able to join them onstage for the Q&A. I left the screening and later received a call from the theater manager explaining that he had recruited the help of the Prospector Hotel staff: They shoveled the sidewalk and the entire pile of snow blocking the door so Jim could go around the building and enter onstage.   

Rachel “Cola” Engel 
Theater Manager, Sundance Film Festival  

The weekend prior to Sundance 2012, the Green Bay Packers had gotten knocked out of the NFL playoffs. “Beasts of The Southern Wild” was the film with all the buzz that year and the evening it was screening I went to see how the lines were shaping up. While doing so, I overheard a group of guys talking about [running back] Ryan Grant. I figured they were maybe discussing the recent loss or someone else also named Ryan Grant. But that changed when a gentleman gently stopped me with his hand on my shoulder.  
“Is that a Brewers shirt you’re wearing?” 
“Are you from Wisconsin?” 
“Are you a Packers fan?” 
“Hi, I’m Ryan Grant, running back for the Green Bay Packers.” 
I think my jaw literally hit the ground as I shook hands with him. He and his buddies had to waitlist for the show — fortunately, we got them seated. Whew! 

John Cooper 
Director, Sundance Film Festival  

One of my favorite moments was very early in my career and a time I learned one of my most important lessons: Never underestimate your audience. It was a midnight screening in the Egyptian and we had programmed a wild film called “Vegas in Space,” a campy drag extravaganza. We sat in a bar on Main Street killing time, palms sweating until 12:00 when we were sure no one was going to be waiting at the theater. When we arrived, the lobby
was packed and electric…and yes there were many men in dresses from all over the western states! It was a great night. 
Also notable: Anna Wintour, Tammy Faye, Joan Rivers, Shirley MacLaine, Viola Davis, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to name just a few of the incredibly talented icons I have met…in and out of dresses. 
Rosie Wong 
Director, Industry Relations, Sundance Institute 

We’re always told not to take pictures of the talent. I broke that rule once. “Damsel” was premiering at the Eccles in 2018 and Daisy, the miniature horse from the film, walked the press line. Sadly, I missed it, but then she came back into the building’s rear entrance for the Q&A. I’ve never seen a more excited group of staff and volunteers (myself included) as we got to pet her, brush her, and take all the photos we wanted! I started crying, I was so happy.  

Sari Navarro 
Coordinator, Sundance Industry Office 

Two years ago, I went to a film’s after party at the invitation of a friend who had worked on the film. The DJ was killing it, playing jam after jam, and I was really enjoying the party, dancing the whole night. At some point the host asked us to give it up to the DJ. It was Idris Elba. 
Sara Mendoza 
Volunteer/Greeter, Sundance Film Festival  

Another volunteer and I decided that the best way to greet people for Penny Lane’s film “Hail Satan?” was, of course, to yell, “Hail Satan!” The reactions from the crowd were great: people yelling it back, making devil horns with their hands, giving us high-fives. But the most memorable was a woman who walked past and said “I’ll never hail Satan.” As the film was exiting the same woman walked past us and said, “I still won’t
hail him, but I guess he’s not so bad.”
All hail to the power of film! 
Heidi Zwicker 
Senior Programmer, Sundance Film Festival 

Last year, I was lucky enough to introduce the world premiere of Minhal Baig’s beautiful film, “Hala.” Just after the screening, she Facetimed her mom to tell her — for the first time — that she had made a film, and held up the phone so the entire audience could wave hello!  Standing beside her on stage for that emotional, celebratory moment is an incredibly special Sundance memory. 
Ross Richey 
Coordinator, Accounts Receivable and Revenue, Sundance Institute 
One year while assisting Customer Support, I took a call from somebody upset that the film “Infinitely Polar Bear” was waitlist-only. Looking at alternative options, I hyped a film that seemed to fit their taste and had two seats open for the premiere, which they reluctantly accepted. That film was “Whiplash,” which ended up winning the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, being a Best Picture nominee, and holding spot #36 on IMDB’s Top 250 films of all-time list.
I’m still proud of that recommendation! 
Andy Hecht 
Production Services Manager, Sundance Institute  

There is one theme that underlies all the classic memories I have of
the Sundance Film Festival. Whether that memory is of movies, venues, prevailing over trials and tribulations, or social gatherings after hours, it is
the people — the staff and volunteers — that make all the memories I am happy to have.  

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