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Guest editorial: Sundance Film Fest is drifting away from Park City

Tom Horton
Park City

Despite being a huge fan of indie cinema and the Sundance Film Festival, it pains me to observe the festival demoting Park City’s role, and I predict that in coming weeks it will decide to not build a headquarters in the city Arts & Culture District.

Don’t take that to mean the Sundance Film Festival is leaving Park City. “Drifting away” is probably a better description. And don’t take that to infer the death of the Arts & Culture District, but merely more postponement while it has a major rework. There are a few lines of evidence that point in this direction:

First, the commitment. Betsy Wallace, Sundance Institute managing director, wrote about it four months ago: “We have continued to engage with the city to ensure the district remains true to the arts and culture aspects we all agreed on initially. We believe it is critical that the core purpose of the district remains true to this original intent.” This and other language makes clear the commitment is to engage, not necessarily to build. And it cites the pandemic is a reason for it reticence: “The Institute needed to pause our work on this important project in order to devote our resources to sustaining our organization, and to serving our mission of supporting independent artists in new ways.” Ithas also been pointed out that neither Sundance or the other anchor has actually spent a nickel of the $6 million pricetag for the land.



Second, the pandemic. With the rest of the world Sundance worried about a participation crisis, but the opposite actually happened: “The seven day Festival reached a total audience 2.7 times larger than at the typical 11-day Utah edition, despite the shorter duration and with fewer feature films (73) than the festival’s typical 120 features.” Sundance gushed about its online Main Street. “The online Festival Village included Main Street that was home to 125 events, panels, and other fun surprises from over 74 partners, including official Festival sponsors, Institute supporters, year-round partners, and nonprofit allied organizations.” Imagine all the money saved by Sundance and partners by doing Main Street online. Announcements to date about the 2022 “hybrid” festival include more events online and fewer days in Park City, which I predict to be long-term trend.

Third, the CEO. Sundance Institute president Keri Putnam is moving on in seven weeks, and will be greatly missed. Have you noticed that when organizations are announcing bad news, it brings in new leadership to do the announcing? The window for that move is opening for Sundance, as it has no doubt noticed.



Fourth, Robert Redford. Earlier this year festival founder Robert Redford sold Sundance Resort, where the festival and institute have a big presence. As Forbes described it, (the sale) “does not affect the structure of, or Robert Redford’s involvement in, the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Catalog, Sundance TV, or the Redford Center. The resort will continue to host workshops and events organized by the Sundance Institute and the Redford Center, including serving as a location for the annual Sundance Film Festival.” In other words, right next door to Park City is a Sundance facility that appears to be set for the future.

Sundance has found its brand is less dependent on Park City than it thought. Why would it spend big money to build an expensive headquarters in a place of declining importance? I and other Parkites won’t change our enthusiasm for indie film, but the role of Sundance in that picture will certainly change going forward.


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