Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Join Koura on the tenth episode of Filmmaking (Actually) as she discusses what she calls the "most wonderful time of the year" - not Christmas, not Hanukkah, not Festivus, but the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah! As she is gearing up for her seventh year of Sundancing, you may be doing much the same. Learn from her perspective and, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience." Also, stay hydrated and put on a sweater, you're making me freeze. (Eleanor Roosevelt didn't say that.)
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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:
How Do You Fest at Sundance, Actually??
Hello! My name is Koura Linda and welcome to my podcast, “Filmmaking Actually”.
“It's the most wonderful time of the year!” Okay I know that's supposed to be like, for the holidays but for me the magical season goes all the way through January because Sundance!
All right, so while my husband and I are running around getting ready for the festival, we wanted to take a few minutes to share our advice on how to fest. To be clear I don't work for Sundance, and this episode is in no way sponsored by or connected to Sundance in any official way. It's just my thoughts and kind of tips and tricks after six years of going to the festival.
I always say you can send 100 people to the Sundance film festival and have them follow a hundred different plans for what they're gonna do while they're there, and while they may see some of the same films or go to the same places at different times, they could literally never cross paths once the entire festival. And I'm pretty sure you could also set it up so that they don't do any of the same things or see any of the same films or anything. So the first thing I'm gonna say is you gotta leave your Fomo at the door. Don't even start to have a fear of missing out because unless you're like Hermione Granger with a time turner on steroids, no one is going to be able to do everything that is happening during the festival. So I promise you can still have an absolutely amazing time, just don't stress about trying to do all of it? Have fun, enjoy every moment because seriously it can be one of the awesomest experiences in your life. Not just saying that. It's, it's really cool.
All right! So first tip, or I guess second because the first one was “Don't Do It All” which is technically a tip. Drink so much water! Like if your lips are starting to get chapped, you're already dehydrated. Start drinking water basically now, and bring a bottle of water to drink on the plane. Pro travel tip: Bring an empty bottle through TSA and then fill it at a water fountain so you're not paying like 20 bucks for a bottle of water at the airport gate. Drink more than you ever thought you could need because you're actually gonna need it. If you drink like, alcohol (as much as the alcohol pours fairly freely at the parties) try to offset each alcoholic drink with one or two or more non-alcoholic ones. And just randomly, try to bring some cash to tip the bartenders even if you're just getting a soda or some water. They're working pretty late and they're working really hard, so even if you just get a soda drop them you know, a tip.
Anyway if you're driving, the legal blood alcohol content in Utah just went down. So now it's .05 percent. So while you should never drink and drive, even buzzed, (buzzed driving is drunk driving I feel very strongly about that) be extra careful in Utah as their legal limit is very very strict for drunk drivers. I will say good for them, but uh just know that you can have less blood alcohol before you're past the legal limit in Utah.
So lots of water, Sundance has free water bottles for festival attendees and there are water stations throughout the festival so you're in good hands. Just be sure to drink a ton of water. The reason I stress this is because if you've ever heard of Denver, the mile high city? Park City is actually at a higher altitude than Denver. The air is really thin, it's very dry, so you will dehydrate faster especially if you're from any sort of humid area. And believe it or not, even LA has more moisture than Park City in the winter. That said, just be careful with things like running up a flight of stairs, or if you're running late to the bus, or to make it to a line on time… aside from just a mild headache or dizziness, you can get a major headache or worse, actually pass out! I know that sounds super scary, I promise it isn't that bad. Tens of thousands of people go to Sundance every year and they're fine. But just don't be careless or reckless. Um, also just random side note, you shouldn't ever run to catch the bus because the sidewalks can be very icy and traffic is nuts and you don't want to fall. So that's kind of the warning side of things out of the way, now the fun stuff!
If you didn't hear my earlier episode on “How Not to Freeze at Sundance Actually” I highly recommend you check it out, it's a pretty short episode. I will add that if you drink hot teas or soups it can also help you stay warm, and there's a lot of local coffee shops and restaurants that will do teas and coffees and soups to go. There's also a lot of places around the festival that are giving out coffee and hot chocolate so just keep a note of those and go ahead and pick up a cup! Keep you toasty. You also can get, they have like hand warmers and foot warmers. There's a supermarket kind of right in the main Park City area. I don't know if this is true or not, I'm just going to say, places in Park City definitely take advantage of the supply and demand side of a capitalistic society, and they bump up their prices when Sundance comes around. So if you're able to venture outside the city, there are slightly further away other grocery stores, other places to buy things. You have to decide if it's worth saving a couple bucks, or if the convenience of the closer store is better? (That's how capitalism works) Um, but you can get little hand warmers, uh they're like instant hot packs basically and they go into your pockets. Sometimes there's sponsors at the festival that are giving them out, like I think Lyft gave them out last year. But you can put them in your pockets, you can slide them under your gloves, they have ones that go in your shoes to help keep your toes warm. So that's just a way to when you're running around the festival how not to freeze. Just adding that in there.
Another thing to know is that at Sundance you have these tens of thousands of people from all over the world, but they're also bringing immune systems that are not geographically accustomed to each other into small spaces like, shared ride shares, packed buses, theaters... So on top of the water you may want to drop some airborne tablets into a bottle now and then, or do Emergen-C , or vitamin chews or whatever you do to keep your immune system healthy and happy. Just take some extra precaution for that, wash your hands, you know all the good stuff.
Also try and sleep. I know that sounds like “What??” People try and go in with like three hours of sleep at night. But, it isn't fun to be falling asleep in a film, or just be grumpy because you're exhausted. So if you're gonna be at Sundance for a long time, like more than just opening weekend, but you're gonna be there for say five days or more. If you can, (and I know some people on media passes, or with like press assignments they can't do this) but if you can, try to plan one day somewhere in the middle just to sleep in. You'll have more fun if you aren't exhausted, and those few extra hours of sleep will mean that you aren't just like running yourself ragged, and too exhausted to even enjoy things. Which is why you're there in the first place.
Okay! Uh, try to plan your housing early! They announce the dates usually in the fall of the year before. So like September or October you can start to plan your trip. You can find rentals online, or hotels, there also are so many Facebook groups. Um, Sundance Networking, Women In… Women Networking In Sundance I think one of them is called. If you're adventurous you know, you can meet up with people to split a place, I would recommend being careful with people you meet online, and checking mutual friends and all that. But um, when you split an Airbnb, the cost can go down to like 40, 50, 60 bucks a night. Where we're staying, to stay in the private room is $85 a night. And to stay like on an air mattress is 45 a night. So… just because we booked it so far in advance.
One thing to know when you're planning where to stay, there is no reliable transportation between Salt Lake City and Park City as far as like public transportation, a daily bus schedule etc. Um also there's like one main pass between Park City and Salt Lake City. So if it snows really badly, which it's known to do in Utah once or twice, um the pass between Park City and Salt Lake City can actually close. And then you can get stuck on one side or the other. So if you're staying in Salt Lake and you have to get back that night, and there's a really bad snow storm, you may get stuck in Park City or vice versa. Also the ride shares have price surges, and I have heard of people paying hundreds of dollars to get home from Park City to Salt Lake, and that's just one way. Like it's ridiculous. So, try to get housing on whatever side of the mountains you're planning on spending most of your time. There's a lot going on in Salt Lake. I've spent time down there during the festival and it's awesome, you can see all the films. But the main hub definitely is Park City, it's where Main Street is, lots of the sponsors have their events there and venues there. Um, so just plan your accommodations and your travel accordingly.
Okay, plan your flights early and check airline websites directly because some airlines, (like Southwest) they don't do aggregate sites like the Travelocity, Kayak whatever. So if you don't go to their website you won't see their flights. And I don't know what they are right now, but even as of like a week or so ago, you could go from Burbank to Salt Lake for about $150 round trip, including two check bags and two carry on. I've seen tickets across the country that are about $400 no sorry $200 round trip, uh two check bags two carry on. So just do a little bit of research, it doesn't have to be a multi-million dollar trip to go to Sundance. I'll be covering light travel in general for filmmakers in another episode, but I just wanted to share that for this one. Just shop around for flights, and if you want to go back next year or any future year, just try and book your flights as far as advanced as possible.
At the festival itself, um talk to people! Everyone there is either a filmmaker or a lover of film in some way. And while I'm gonna do a whole other episode just on networking in general, I will say that saying “Hi” is a really great place to start. Asking if someone is a filmmaker, what they do, asking about their projects. What films have they seen so far at the festival that they love? What venues have they seen? What events have they been to? What panels did they go to that were really good? Um, it's a great way to find awesome things not to miss during the festival and to get a feel of films that are there, and it's also, those are really good easy basic conversation starters.
I will add that there's an amazing bus system in Park City, and I say amazing because it's 100% free and I think that's incredible. Everyone takes the bus, even filmmakers. And the filmmakers also go to panels that aren't their panels; they go to other screenings of other people's films. The reason I mention this is because, (really at any festival this should be a rule) but I do think that it's really important that if you don't have anything nice to say...yeah just don't say anything. Art is open to such a wide range of opinions, and most people whose work has gotten them into Sundance, this is the opportunity of a lifetime! And they have poured their heart and their soul into this project, and as you're standing there tearing it apart waiting for coffee, they could literally be standing right behind you. I don't think there's ever a reason to openly tear apart someone else's art, but do try to be extra respectful at places like Sundance, and if you didn't like a film just don't talk about it! I mean talk about something you did like, or find something about the project that you can acknowledge that was good. I mean hey, they actually made a movie and they got into Sundance! So you know, that's pretty cool. Um, and then just move on you know, like “Wow yeah! Those… It's awesome, it's so cool that they got in!” and that's it. You know, and change a subject or whatever. You don't need to be ripping apart a film's wardrobe choices and then the wardrobe designer is next in line and you turn around and they're just like “Hi”. Awkward. So yeah just be a good person.
And then speaking of the bus, I said it's free, it goes everywhere, take it as much as possible. There are ride shares but prices surge, traffic is literally insane, the buses are actually usually on time. The more people take the bus, the less people are adding cars to the road, which is just better for the world in general. Also there's this really cool transit authority map. There's a special one, (because they have extra bus routes added during the festival) so there's a special edition map that gets put in all the buses, and all the bus stops, and everything during the festival. So just grab one of those, it's all color coded, it's really easy to use. If you have any questions there are really awesome volunteers that stand at all the bus stops. Just remember that these people are literally standing outside the entire time they're working, so for their entire shift they are standing outside! They are dealing with all the people, and all the questions, and the hundreds of people coming on and off the bus every stop. So this is another opportunity to be nice to people um, and just respect that they are literally volunteering their time to help make the festival a more enjoyable experience for you. So if you have any questions ask them, and if they help you out just say thank you.
Um, also the bus is an awesome place to meet people! Like I've literally met so many people just from random conversations on the bus. Like I can't recommend that enough. There's people who I'm literally still friends with to this day who I met sitting next to on the bus at Sundance. There is a free app that you should download, it's the Sundance app, it has the schedule and panels and notifications. You can follow events that you want to be sure not to miss, and you can wait list for things. It's.. all the things are all on the app and it's fantastic. The only thing I will say is when you're searching a film, and you're looking at… let's say you really want to see “Miss Americana” (because I think everybody does) um, but when you click on it and then it shows all the theaters it's playing at, and you're like, “Oh great it's showing in 45 minutes at this place!” make sure that this place is in the same city that you're in. Because if it's in Park City you're not getting and… sorry. Because if it's in Park City and you're in Salt Lake, you're not getting there in 45 minutes, and vice versa. So there's a couple different venues uh at the festival. So when you're in the app, you can either change the settings or just make sure to look at where the theater is so that you're not waitlisting at a venue you can't get to, or trying to get somewhere only to find out that it's too far away.
So that's just a little tip for using the app. Um, you do need to make sure that you are at the places you wait listed for or you have tickets to ON TIME. They draw a very hard line on that. There's so many people who want to get into all of these incredible films. Shoot! There's so many people who want to get into all of these incredible films, that if there's an open seat they're going to put someone in it. So I think hard copy tickets, (like if you have an actual ticket to something) I think you have to be there within 30 minutes of the screening time or you won't necessarily get in. And then for the wait list… so basically the waitlist number is, sometimes it's open spots, people don't make it, they change their mind, they go somewhere else whatever. Um, so you can get kind of like a standby number. And what they do is they give out a certain number of numbers, some theaters have more than others, some only have a couple, some screenings they're just like “Yeah it's full don't worry.”
So let's say you get wait list number six. You go to the wait list area, you wait, and then about I think 30 minutes before the film starts they open the waitlist doors, and they have ushers who count how many open seats there are, and they'll say “Okay there's, we have four open seats!'' So they let in the first four waitlist numbers. And then as more people taking their seats like, “Okay we have,” you know, “We have two more open seats, so the next two people” So if you are number six, yay you get in! Um wait list numbers, you then buy a ticket as soon as they know that you're going to get in and it's $25 cash. You pay for it, you get handed a ticket, and you walk right in like a ticket holder. So it's a really good way of getting into films that maybe you weren't thinking you could see because the ticket sold out. There's also a couple of panels that are tickets only that you can wait lists to try and get into.
I will say if you're not able to be there, (I think it's 30 minutes before) cancel your waitlist number because if you don't cancel it, you're holding a number from someone who could have gotten it. Which not only is that not fair to other festival attendees, it's not fair to the filmmaker who could have had more people in the audience. Like they're there to share their art and people want to see their art! So really make sure to cancel your number so that the next person can get it. And also if you don't cancel your number enough times, you will get locked out of the app. Um, there's somebody at the other end who then marks if you've arrived or not, and if you haven't arrived they notify the app that you didn't show up. So it's really simple, you just hit cancel my waitlist number and it cancels. So yeah that's the wait list.
Oh! Also, unless you really really want to see like the Sundance version before distributors get their hands on it and re-edit it, or you really want to be there for a live q&a, or for some reason you just want to be one of the first people in the world to see the film, (which is awesome!) um don't try and get into screenings for films, especially if they're super popular / if they already have distribution. Like if Netflix bought it you're gonna be able to see it. So if you just want to see the film, maybe try to use the time to see films that don't have distribution that you may never have the chance again to see. If there's nothing else that like, is super calling you and you're just like “I really want to see that!” then totally! You know, waitlist, try and get in, stand outside, see if somebody has an extra ticket. But if a film is distributed, like if it's coming out on Amazon, you can just do a quick internet search of the title and it'll be all over the headlines if it got picked up. So um, you'll be able to see it for sure! And you know, you also will have a higher chance of getting into a slightly less in-demand film. So if you really, you know, you just really want to see a movie that day, and maybe you didn't get a waitlist number to the one that you wanted, just see what other wait lists are open and try and go to those. I've seen so many films last minute where I'm like “Whatever I'll just watch this one.” and then I go to it and the film is incredible and I never would have seen it if I was only focused on seeing the big film I wanted to see. So, that's a little thing to throw out there.
Also I mentioned panels earlier. Panels to me are the hidden gems of any festival. Like, learning how other artists make their art, or at places like Sundance… getting advice from some of the top professionals of the indie film industry… Unless you're coming specifically as an audience member, you don't make films, you just want to watch them, you don't care how they're made, you want the sausage not the factory. Then, but even then sometimes it's kind of cool to see behind the scenes in a movie. But um, check out the panels! Sometimes it's fun to have that information. And as a filmmaker it's literally priceless. I have learned so much! Probably up until a couple years ago, like almost everything I knew about sound design I learned at the Dolby Film panels, the sound panels that they have every year. Um and then I had a mentor help me after that, so now I have more information. But my first film won an award for excellence in filmmaking like, overall. And one of the big things we did, (and that was a lot of sound design) and probably 99% of what I wanted in that and how I worked with that I learned from the Dolby Panel. So check out the panels, there's Partner panels, there's a Cinema Café, there's a Filmmaker's Logic, there's so much stuff going on! It's not just movies, you know there's so much happening.
I've kind of seen, (especially more so over the last couple of years) there's like this weird encroachment on Sundance, where like, I've gotten emails from like women in film networks where they're like “Be on a Sundance panel!” and you have to pay like a thousand dollars to be a panelist. So first of all, those are not Sundance panels. They may be during the time of Sundance, but it is not actually put on by the Sundance Institute. Again, I'm not a spokesperson for Sundance. I'm not connected to them. I'm just talking as far as my own experience as a festival goer. But the Sundance Institute is a non-profit organization and it does not charge people to be on their panels. They don't charge people, like that's just not a thing. So you know, some organization will have an event during Sundance, or they'll have a party during Sundance, but it's not an official Sundance party. So just be really careful, because some of them are totally legit! It's like an Independent Filmmaker's day, and they have all these awesome panelists. (I'll just mention that the Vice President of Women in Film International is a panelist for one of these panels.) Those are like legit panels and they do have a ticket cost. But just be careful of like, people saying “Oh I'll pitch your film at Sundance if you pay me this much money!” or “I'll get you into these parties if you pay me this much money!” Sundance parties are invite only, and they don't cost money. So just be careful. Try and stay close to the heart of the festival is my advice. All the official Sundance sponsors, and Sundance panels, and um, like I think they call them like Partner Panels, they're all on the app. So if you don't see something on the Sundance app, just be careful. That's all. And again some of the other events are super cool and totally fun, but just make sure things are really transparent and that they're promoting themselves as an event during the time of Sundance, and they're not trying to rip off Sundance's name to falsely elevate their own whatever. Okay.
No matter where you are, just ask questions, learn, grow, observe, there's such an incredible wealth of knowledge and experiences. I know I sound like I'm all like “LALALA” but I cannot tell you how much I love Sundance. I started going in 2014 and it is… it's given me so much confidence as a filmmaker, as a person. I just, there's so much like, people looking down their noses at you, and like judging you and questioning you, and are you good enough? And are you this? And are you that? And who are you and why should I care? And then you walk into Sundance and it's all about like, “Oh do you have a film here?” like “What are you making? What projects are you working on? You're a filmmaker? That's so cool!” Like, everybody wants to make movies! And I don't know, maybe I'm just very very lucky with the thousands of people I've met over the last six festivals, but it's just it's a very different vibe, and I wish the whole film industry would take a page out of Sundance's book.
One last thing to mention, The New Frontier is a part of Sundance. That is at, either The New Frontier at The Ray or New Frontier Central. Try and check that out if you can. Central, you only need credentials, and just stand in line basically. New Frontier at The Ray, you need tickets or a waitlist number. The New Frontier is probably one of the most underrated parts of Sundance. Basically it's all the new ways of telling stories while integrating with advancing technology. Augmented reality, virtual reality, um but it's not just like cutting edge tech. In 2014 my first year there, there were some exhibits from this company called Oculus. You know, back in 2014 it was like whoa what's Oculus? Now Oculus is a household name in VR. As a filmmaker I remember being there when we were first looking at it like, okay, what does it mean to create a virtual reality visual experience? Because as a traditional filmmaker we're used to working with a box. You know, you've got a very set place, the audience is facing, they're looking at a screen, you know exactly where they're looking. Once you introduce this world of virtual reality, you can't have the note blow off the table if the person is looking in the other direction. They're not going to see it, they're not, they're going to miss that plot point. So then it becomes: How do you direct people's attention to what you want them to see in the experience and the story? How do you want them to move through it? It kind of shakes the traditional line of narrative storytelling. It forces you know, creative usages of light and sound, and just how else can you tell the story aside from like a close-up of the note that says “I'm pregnant” you know whatever! Such a dumb example. Um aside like a close-up of a note that says “You're fired” or whatever you know. Like how else do you tell this story? So it was, it's been really cool for me personally as a storyteller to see the kind of transformation that the art takes as the technology kind of like, transcends its own boundaries. Yeah, The New Frontier is rad. Totally check it out, I find it super inspiring. Also the artists are usually there with the exhibits so you can talk to them, you can ask them what inspired them, you can give them feedback. Be nice. But that is a plus of going to an actual film screening is, there is a chance that the filmmakers will be there and you can see them. But if there's a filmmaker you really want to see you can also check the panels because sometimes the filmmakers also have panels that they're doing and it's another chance to just hear more about their story and their process and all of that.
I will give one tip about networking in this episode. Don't make it all like “Me me me!” Like, connect with other people! A network is, it comes from like the idea of a computer network like where both terminals are… it's a mutually beneficial thing, it's not just like all about one side. Ask people questions about their work, their art, who they are, what they're doing, like be interested in them. But also definitely bring business cards. Um if people have one, or they're on social media, you know follow them on social media, get an email, somehow connect with people. It may be a little too short notice for this year, but Vistaprint does like 500 business cards for like 10 bucks or 20 bucks like it's ridiculous. So skip a few days of lattes at some point during the year, get some business cards made up and printed. It takes a while to go through 500 business cards, trust me. But it's totally worth it.
I think that's everything. Um, if I forgot anything I'll just have to cover it next year. If you have more questions go ahead and email us at filmmakingactually(at)gmail.com. You also can comment, like, subscribe, share with your friends, rate us, review us, all that obnoxious social media stuff that I'm required to say at the end of the episode okay that's it bye!
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