The real Judge Judy presides over Sundance
January 16, 2013
Most people prepare for the Sundance Film Festival by scouring film guides and making dinner reservations. Judy Billings, however, spends the days preceding the festival cooking curries and stews with her husband, Tom. No – the couple doesn’t hibernate for the week as some locals do during the chaotic festival, the Billingses and their friends simply cannot sacrifice time to stop for food between their many scheduled film screenings.
Judy Billings has lived in Park City for more than 20 years and has been attending the festival since before it was held in Park City and called "Sundance" (the festival was originally called the U.S. Film Festival and was held in Salt Lake City). Billings is best known in Utah for her professional career. She was a judge for the Utah Court of Appeals from 1987 to 2009. "I’m the real Judge Judy," she says, "the one that never made any money."
However, among her family and friends Billings may be better known as "The Ringleader of Sundance." Every year she secures tickets and makes the complicated arrangements for her family and friends to attend the festival. Billings’ expertise is informed by years of experience attending the festival and by her work as a member of the local Sundance advisory board, a position she held for 10 years.
For the past 15 years, Billings’ ‘dearest friend’ and college roommate, Noreen Clark, has flown to Park City for about four days to join her for as many films as possible. This year Billings will host Clark and two additional friends for one weekend, and her son and his wife during the other weekend. Both groups will see three films a day. Anyone who has booked Sundance ticket packages can imagine the logistical complications of booking so many tickets in a set time period – especially taking into account film preferences for multiple people. Billings, however, has developed a routine.
One program Billings finds incredibly helpful is the Sundance Institute’s ‘Patron Circle.’ donating additional money to the Institute, individuals can earn priority access to purchase ticket packages and select films, a virtual guarantee that Patron Circle members will get to see the movies on their lists. "I would be a nervous wreck," Billings says of booking tickets before she joined the Patron Circle, "[The Circle] has taken all of the tension out of it."
For those without the commitment or means to buy packages, Billings has a few suggestions for purchasing individual tickets. She says the availability of tickets can depend on how much a movie has been mentioned in the press and by word of mouth, "If [the movie] has gotten a lot of buzz, it may be hard to get off the waitlist," she says. To increase odds of getting a ticket, she suggests choosing screenings at larger venues like The MARC, Eccles Theatre, and the Temple Theater. She also suggests going to screenings early in the morning. She says, "Pick an 8:30 a.m. time because most of the Hollywood-type people are out at parties all night and don’t make it to the early screenings."
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Apart from scheduling movie screenings, choosing what movies to purchase tickets for can be a challenge. Like all things Sundance, Billings has worked out a system for selecting movies. Right after the film guide comes out, Sundance hosts an event called "Cocktails with Cooper," a digital and live presentation with Festival Director John Cooper who talks about the selections in the upcoming festival (the invitation is a perk of Sundance Institute membership). "They never say this is better than that," Billings says, "but after years of attending you get hints about what is not to be missed."
After the event, Billings emails a list of films featured at "Cocktails with Cooper" to her Sundance group. Everyone goes through the list and film guide and sends back their requests. This year everyone actually agreed on one film: "Anita," a film about Anita Hill, the woman who testified to inappropriate behavior of a Supreme Court nominee before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.
Although one gets the impression that Billings would be happy to see almost any movie at the festival, she and her crew have some guidelines for selecting films. The most important thing to them is to see movies that may never screen elsewhere after the festival. This means skipping many of the premieres which have already been purchased by major studios and will be widely distributed. There appears to be some preference among the group to see documentaries and international films which are even less likely than other films to be purchased, but Billings’ final list includes a mix of all categories.
The logistics of seeing so many films is what prompts Billings and her husband to spend days prior to the festival making meals that can be consumed on the go. However, even after eliminating the need to stop for meals, navigating transportation at the festival is a challenge. Billings says the most efficient means of transportation is the local bus system. However, when movies are very close together, waiting for busses can be unreliable. In these extreme situations, Tom Billings steps up for the team and shuttles the group from one movie to the next, dropping them off at the theater, he parks the car (often very far away) and eventually "stumbles into the theater in the dark." Billings also mentioned parking passes which can be purchased for some of the theaters; however these are only useful for moviegoers that can schedule most of their movies at the same venue.
There is no doubt that Billings is one of the festival’s biggest fans. Unfortunately, not all of Park City’s locals share Billings enthusiasm for the festival. But Billings can offer some encouragement for skiers: "90 percent of the time the festival brings snow," she says, "it’s very funny seeing all the Hollywood-types in their two-inch heeled boots walking in two feet of snow!"
Quick facts: Judy Billings’ take on Sundance
Favorite part of the festival: Seeing the independent films and "meeting fascinating people from around the world while waiting in line."
Least favorite part of the festival: Getting around.
Must see movie in 2013: "Anita"
Number of screenings booked this year: 10 movies in three days.
Best celeb sighting: Robert Redford – she met him on a chairlift without realizing who he was until he disembarked and was immediately swarmed by fans.
Strangest Sundance phenomenon: Waiting for a movie to begin in a theatre buzzing with conversation; strange because everyone is talking on the phone – not the person next to them.
Typical day on the Billings’ Sundance Schedule:
Friday, Jan. 26:
- 8:30 a.m.: Screening, "Ain’t Them Bodies Saints" at Prospector Square Theatre
- 11:30 a.m.: Screening, "Afternoon Delight" at the Egyptian Theatre
- Dinner: pre-made chicken curry at home
- 8:45 p.m.: "Kill Your Darlings" at the Library Center Theatre