The Sundance Film Festival, one of the biggest film events in the calendar year, is lifting the veil on plans for its upcoming 2021 edition.
In an open letter addressed to the Sundance filmmaking community, festival director Tabitha Jackson provided details of a hybrid festival which will, in Jackson’s words, “have an online home, making the festival accessible in a way it never has been before” while also featuring an expanded physical component that will take place live in Utah “and in at least 20 independent and community cinemas across the U.S. and beyond.”
The plan as it stands factors in the challenges posed by COVID-19 that are upending the festival circuit at large. While socially distant gatherings of various sizes are permitted in Utah and other states, the outlook for international travel, and other elements of the festival experience ranging from waitlist tents to shuttle buses to large-scale events surrounding the programming, is murky at present.
The full Sundance program will be featured in the usual host state of Utah, where films run in the traditional Sundance hub Park City as well as venues in Salt Lake City, while the other cities will run “a bespoke slate from the official selection alongside complementary programming of their own,” said Jackson. Sundance is currently in talks with cinema operators “from LA to Louisville, from New York to Nashville, from Austin to Atlanta, from Detroit to Denver, from Minneapolis to Mexico City — with many more to come,” according to Jackson.
The online component, meanwhile, will be “the nucleus of the festival,” where “audiences will have the opportunity to view the curated program and take part in discussions and special live events online via a brand-new platform.”
In addition, festival organizers are looking at a later start date, perhaps January 28, to factor in the presidential inauguration and provide enough time between that event and Sundance’s kick-off.
The news comes after organizers for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) shed further light on plans for its September 2020 edition. Those plans also hinge on a hybrid model that will feature a reduced program and screenings in select venues, as well as outdoor, “drive-in” screenings and a virtual component. As other festivals have seen over the course of the last few months, buy-in from all sectors of the business — from filmmakers to sales agents, and from producers to buyers — is essential.
“The success of this idea, indeed its very heartbeat, depends upon collaboration — between us and key players in this delicate ecology of independent cinema,” Jackson said. “Rest assured that even amid the excitement of experimentation, if our approach doesn’t work for the artist, it doesn’t work for us.
“Our model intentionally allows us to dial up or dial down the live gatherings (especially in our Utah home) and festival length as conditions dictate,” she added. “The structure as we are currently conceiving it will remain intact — a festival that for this year is live and digital and is co-created with partners. A festival that will serve our communities where they want to be, given conditions of pandemic and economy.”