Experience at Sundance: Checking into scenes of independent films with festival gossips

After a long intercontinental flight, layover, and domestic flight in the United States, I arrived at the 40th Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on a snowy winter night on January 19th while trying to fight off extreme fatigue from jet lag.

Aerial view of Salt Lake City in Utah on my flight

My long journey to the film festival began with a ferry ride to Hong Kong International Airport. Fortunately, I had the company of a director friend since the start of my ferry transfer to the airport early in the morning. Her short film was selected for the Short Film category at Sundance. Along the way, we engaged in various discussions about the scale of the film festival, the treatment of selected filmmakers and other topics related to the event.

In a nutshell, the organizers of the renowned Sundance Film Festival are quite stingy. Filmmakers selected for the Short Film category were provided a meager travel allowance of US$500 and a total of four movie tickets. It's worth noting that Sundance took place in the hot skiing destination of Park City. During winter, the city sees its peak tourism season. Coupled with the fact that Sundance was held there, hotel rooms in the area easily cost over a thousand dollars, and they were often fully booked well in advance.

This travel partner of mine is an experienced and well-regarded documentary filmmaker. Although she had previously been part of the Sundance Summer Lab, she received no special treatment. Despite being a talented filmmaker, she found herself investing her own money to attend Sundance. She saw it as "paying a small tuition fee" to witness and learn about the business operations of independent filmmaking. After all, Sundance, being the largest and most significant independent film festival globally, is also the most highly commercialized event.

Following a schedule completely identical to mine, she spent five nights in Park City before moving on to Salt Lake City, the largest city in Utah, and continued shuttling back and forth to watch films in Park City. After all, it is simply too expensive to do so in Park City.

Sundance in Park City, an acclaimed and expensive ski town

My director friend informed me that this year, the Sundance Institute received a total of 12,098 short film submissions. She shared a lament from a selector at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, who complained about receiving 3,000 submissions, considering it overwhelming. Compared to Sundance, those numbers seem trivial. Ultimately, only 53 short films made it to this year's Sundance, distributed among five narrative shorts, one documentary shorts, and one animated shorts categories. I thought that even if there were up to 100 judges for the preliminary selection, and each of them was responsible for watching 121 films, in the end, they could only select less than half the total number of submissions. If we look at it this way, it seems practically impossible to watch them all, right?

As for feature films, there were 4,410 submissions, with only 82 of them from 24 different countries making it to the final selection. Another friend of mine who closely followed gossip about the film festival told me that Sundance had earlier been embroiled in a scandal. Some feature films were charged a submission fee of US$80 each, only to be seemingly rejected without the selectors even watching them. The evidence came from a producer who checked the play history on the Vimeo platform and found no viewing records at all.

If this rumor was true, then Sundance would unfortunately have played those 11,000-odd rejected short films for a sucker. This industry gossip implies, on the one hand, that there is an overwhelming surplus of film productions and insufficient numbers of audience and selectors. On the other hand, the opaque selection mechanism of the film festival may harbor many gray areas for rent-seeking or turn it into a stronghold for insider connections. Of course, learning the art of networking is the reason why all creators, including my director friend, "pay tuition fees" to join Sundance for self-improvement.

Until her short film premiered at Sundance, my director friend was unaware of whether there would be issues with the Digital Cinema Package (DCP). The Sundance Institute informed her that they could arrange a test screening as a technical check, but its opening price was $750 for half an hour, which was equivalent to buying out an entire theater. Since it was almost entirely self-funded, she decided, "Why waste that money? Let's see how it goes on the day."

Living in a Sports Documentary

I visited Sundance for the first time in January 2019. Back then, it was as if I was living in an American B-grade drama film. My couch-surfing host in Salt Lake City constantly argued with his messy long-term female tenant and they used the dirtiest language imaginable. It was like revisiting all the profanities I picked up from American underground films and offered me a deep immersion into the world of independent cinema at Sundance. Fortunately, they didn't resort to pulling guns on each other.

This time, during the first half of the film festival, I was thankfully able to secure the last cost-effective Airbnb accommodation in an area in Park City where most screenings were concentrated at. I arrived there at night and after opening my room door, I knew I had stepped into an inspirational sports-themed documentary selected for Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition.

On the coat rack in the hallway, there hung a pile of Winter Olympics jerseys of the Israeli national team, giving me a rough idea of the identity of my host, Dave. Seated in his wheelchair, he began training his dog while engaging in a conversation with me.

Dave with his smart dog

"I am a member of the Israeli bobsled team with both American and Israeli citizenships. Previously, I was a professional snowboarder. Fifteen years ago, I was hit by a reckless snowboarder at Lake Tahoe in California, and it left me permanently disabled. Since then, I switched to bobsledding at every Paralympic Games, and made significant improvements to the sled tracks at the Games. In recent years, I've also become a professional ice hockey goalie. Tomorrow, I'm heading to Las Vegas for a league match with my Vegas Golden Knights’ disabled team." It's worth noting that the Vegas Golden Knights were the champions of the last National Hockey League (NHL) season, and its disabled team also secured the top title in the U.S. National Championships.

Photos of Dave and his bobsled team

Upon learning that I had experienced four-man bobsledding on the 2002 Winter Olympics track in Park City, Dave became even more enthusiastic. He went on to compare various Winter Olympic tracks and expressed his admiration for the Beijing track. And for the next edition of the Olympic Games, it has been decided that the bobsled track in Cortina, Italy, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1956 and was also featured in a complete sequence in the James Bond film “For Your Eyes Only”, will be permanently abandoned with no plans for reconstruction. Currently, there are discussions about whether to relocate the bobsled events to Innsbruck, Austria, or St. Moritz, Switzerland. According to Dave, the bobsled track in St. Moritz is undoubtedly the best in the world.

Photo of me suited up for four-man bobsledding on the 2002 Winter Olympics track in Park City

Due to his remarkable personal history, a producer engaged in a detailed conversation with Dave during the Sundance Film Festival two years ago. This discussion led to the development of a preliminary script. However, much like many film projects that falter midway, there has been no news since then.

Dave also hosted another Airbnb guest, Taylor, an independent filmmaker from Los Angeles. Like many filmmakers who came to "pay tuition fees," Taylor didn't have any works selected for Sundance. He merely wanted to attend as many film festivals as possible to meet potential collaborators or sponsors.

I regretted only chatting with Dave for 10 minutes because I wanted to rush off to catch my first film at the festival and at the same time, beat jet lag and adjust to a new sleep schedule. Unfortunately, due to our brief 10-minute conversation, I missed the 7:00 pm screening of a film about AI. Perhaps, as a guest, Taylor could complete the visual storytelling of our legendary host?

"This is the safest place in America. I don't lock the doors, and there are no keys. Just come and go as you please," Dave told me before I headed out to catch the film screenings.

Movie theatre at Metropolitan Holiday Village 4 Cinemas in Park City

My First Sundance Film This Year

Fortunately, the first film I chose to watch at Sundance this year, "Out of My Mind," which was selected for the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Competition, turned out to be very refreshing and enjoyable. The story revolves around a smart girl who insists on attending a regular school and participating in the National Whiz Kids Competition to communicate with more peers, despite being wheelchair-bound and having aphasia. It is an inspirational and heartwarming film. As I was trying hard to fight off sleepiness caused by jet lag, I expected myself to sleep like a log when I was in the movie theatre. Surprisingly, I remained wide awake throughout the entire screening.

Phoebe-Rae Taylor in “Out of My Mind”

The film provides a smooth voiceover for the speech-impaired girl. Initially, I thought it's the work of some advanced technology. However, the voiceover clarifies, "I can use anyone's voice I want; this happens to be Jennifer Aniston's." Gradually, I realize it's just an unrealistic dream of this non-verbal girl, although in reality, Aniston did contribute to the narration. While the girl's daydreaming, the much-missed iconic song "Dreams" by The Cranberries plays in the background.

Now that I have survived till my new bedtime after battling against jet lag, it's time for to drift off to dreamland. Wish me sweet dreams!

Path on my way back to my Airbnb home in Park City

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