An annual stalwart of independent film, the Sundance Film Festival, kicks off in a couple of weeks.
In order to help those who are attending this year, I reached out to over a thousand past Sundance attendees to build a list of tips for surviving (and thriving) at the Sundance Film Festival.
This year, the festival is being held unusually late, starting on Thursday 24 January and finishing on Sunday 3rd February – only the second ever Sundance that has spilt over into February.
So here we have it. The tips below come from Sundance veterans with a combined total of over 600 trips to the festival.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
- Arrive a day before your first meeting or event in order to get the lay of the land.
- When you first arrive, go to Whole Foods and stock up your hotel room. You’ll thank yourself later in the trip.
- Remember your reason for attending the festival and prioritize those things. If you want to see films, plan your schedule. If you have a project to promote, don’t get distracted from your mission.
- Plan ahead but be flexible. Know what films you want to see before you get there and research backup films if you don’t get into your first choice. But don’t let this get in the way of last-minute opportunities – the joy of a film festival is the unexpected screening, party or meeting.
- Book your accommodation early (some suggest as early as June for the next year!)
- If your budget allows, stay somewhere central (i.e. near the Yarrow/Main Street). Alternatively, stay close to the shuttle route. You don’t want to have to rely on cabs to get you to Main Street.
- Get to the ticket offices early. Exactly how early depends on the type of pass you have.
- Attend in the first week, if you can. It seems that the vast majority of film festivals which take place over multiple weekends peak on the first Saturday and Sunday. I have found this in past research for Cannes, Berlin, Toronto and now also Sundance.
- The first week is more networking-focused while the second week is more about the screenings.
It’s not a cheap festival
- It is going to be an expensive trip. Really expensive. Check out the cost of passes and tickets ahead of time so you’re prepared and have budgeted accordingly. Pre-purchased ticket packages cost up to $600 for a book of ten tickets. You can save money by buying individual tickets for $25 (if they’ve not sold out), or for $20 via the electronic waiting list system.
- Unlike most film festivals, you don’t have to have festival accreditation to enjoy many of the events and screenings on offer (if you’re willing to queue). However, having a pass can help you skip queues and see more.
- Convenience comes at a high price. Whether it’s tickets, passes or accommodation – if you want something to be easy then it’s going to be pricey. For example, an express pass for the first week of the festival will set you back $4,000 per person. That gets you priority access to all screenings in all theatres for the seven days between 24th and 29th January. Conversely, an off-peak pass will get you into screenings between 25th January and 3rd February, before 11am and after 10pm. This bargain option is “just” $500.
- A few respondents suggested carrying cash in case you get the chance to buy last-minute tickets, although I can’t tell how relevant this advice is in the futuristic, cashless, app-based world of 2019.
It will be cold
- Check the weather each day so that you don’t get caught out if it rains, snows or hails.
- Dress in layers, which can keep you warm when outside but which you can strip off when inside.
- You’ll need a decent coat, ideally at least knee length.
- Take waterproof boots which don’t hurt your feet. There will be a lot of walking and waiting around in snowy and/or icy conditions. Bonus tip – Ugg boots are not waterproof!
- Bring spare socks in case your feet get wet (or you can help another poor soul who hasn’t read these tips and brought appropriate footwear).
- Prioritise comfort over style. Everyone is battling the cold and no-one expects you to be stylish at the cost of staying alive.
- Bring hand warmers.
- You may end up staying out all day and into the evening so dress accordingly. Don’t count on having time to go back and get changed, even if you’re staying somewhere reasonably central.
- It will be cold. Using data from the US government’s National Weather Service, I have averaged the temperatures and snow depth over the past five years in nearby Salt Lake City.
These routes are made for walking
- Sundance is more spread out than other festivals, such as Cannes. Take the time to learn the main festival venues and where they are located. This will really help when you’re considering options at the last minute.
- Allow plenty of time to get to venues – especially if there has been fresh snowfall.
- It’s a beautiful part of the world so don’t eschew the chance to walk and enjoy the scenery (so long as you’ve heeded the previous tips on dressing appropriately for the weather).
- Don’t rely on a car, but instead use the excellent free shuttle buses which loop around the city.
- As a back-up use Uber but don’t rely on being able to get a cab.
It’s about the films
- Many attendees say they are not at Sundance for the networking events, preferring to focus on the films.
- There seem to be two distinct tactics for approaching which films to see at Sundance:
- Be selective. Scour the guides and websites, plan ahead and aim to see films which are unlikely to make it into cinemas near you later in the year (i.e. the ones without famous people in!)
- See as many films as you can. A good tip here is to try to see films in the same (or nearby) venues so as not to waste the time moving between far-distant venues.
- Be flexible enough with your screening schedule that you can respond to breakout films.
- The festival smartphone app is a vital tool for grabbing last-minute tickets, but you must take action the exact second tickets become available due to demand.
- Aim for second screenings, rather than the premiere, to increase your chances of bagging a ticket.
- Midnight screenings are lots of fun.
It’s important to be expected
- RSVP for all events you’re invited to as otherwise you could be left out in the cold, literally.
- Turning up without being on the list is not going to work. You can increase your chances of being on ‘the list’ by:
- Talking to the organisation hosting the event before the day.
- Signing up for the mailing list of companies and brands connected to the festival before the day.
- Ask around for invites as often people will forward their invites to you.
- A sneaky search of sites like Eventbrite may reveal additional events to RSVP to.
- Visit the many exhibits, the Music Cafe, New Frontier Expo and the Filmmaker Lodge between screenings.
- You’ll be surrounded by some excellent ski slopes so, if that’s your thing, take a day to enjoy them.
- When I’ve run this type of project for other festivals, I always ask for tips on which companies and organisations run the best parties. I did so this time and the overwhelming answer was – it’s not about the parties, it’s about the films.
- That said, here are a few of the organisations whose events came highly recommended (in order of frequency of mentions): Cinetic, Blackhouse, Cinereach, IMDb, Netflix, HP, Lyft, HBO and Impact Partners.
Network like your career depends upon it
- If it’s your first time attending, try to team up with someone who’s been before. Otherwise, it’ll take you a week to get in sync with the festival and by then it’ll be too late. Many respondents mentioned the value of having a connection with a Sundance veteran for everything from getting your bearings to gaining entry to parties. If you don’t know any such people, try to seek them out on your first day.
- Meeting people in queues is one of the joys of Sundance. Embrace it and make friend with your queue buddies.
- Contact industry people you want to meet, sending them an email to set up a meeting a couple of weeks before the festival. Don’t be put off if they are non-committal at first – everyone likes to keep their schedules flexible.
- If you’re there to promote a project (or yourself), bring something to give people you meet. Traditionally, this is a business card or postcard but Sundance rewards creativity so consider something more interesting like stickers, toys or even clothing (budget permitting).
- Talk to the festival volunteers. They’re lovely and also may be able to help you learn about last-minute screenings or exclusive events.
- After the festival, follow up with everyone you met – you never know how you can help each other out in the future.
Manage your energy – electrical, physical and spiritual
- A number of people mentioned that the frenetic nature of most film festivals doesn’t gel well with Sundance. Slow travel and waiting around are the order of the day. Be patient and try not to get stressed.
- Queueing is part of the Sundance experience. Be ready to wait well over an hour in Sundance Industry Office (SIO) queues.
- Carry water and drink it. Over a quarter of all my respondents mentioned the need to stay hydrated.
- Bring a battery pack, cable and plug for your phone. With the need to check apps, connect with others and fill times whilst queueing, you’re going to need them.
- Most of the food on offer is unhealthy or in limited supply, so bring snacks.
- Give yourself some time to sit, be calm and focus on what’s next. This could be a sitdown meal or just a cup of coffee.
- Sleep is important, especially in the first few nights. If you neglect this, you may find you get sick and ruin the latter part of your trip.
- Take plenty of tissues and hand sanitizer to stave off the bugs which prey on tired, dehydrated, cold festival-goers.
- Be kind, be patient, be compassionate. Everyone is working hard and battling many of the same things as you. Be ready to lend a hand to a stranger in need and don’t be afraid to ask the same of others.
I’ll be at Sundance for a few days, launching a new report. We were given access to over 12,000 feature film screenplays along with the scores they got from professional script readers.
The end result is a lengthy investigation into what factors correlate with success for scripts and tips for screenwriters on how to impress these all-important gatekeepers.
I will be publishing the full report for free here on my blog, so stay tuned…