Visitors attending the upcoming Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 15-25) will see an event that’s undergone a substantial facelift since last year.
A brand new 1,300-seat venue, an entirely renovated Egyptian Theater, a “home” theater designation for each major fest category, a new headquarters and hospitality center and a revamped inter-theater transit system are just the most visible of the changes organizers hope will ease fest stress for filmmakers and audiences.
With the chorus of questioning annually growing louder about how the ever-more-successful festival was going to cope with the built-in limitations of its Park City, Utah, home base, Sundance Institute staff for the first time this year have taken an aggressively hands-on approach to alleviating some of the longstanding logistical problems relating to overcrowding and convoluted scheduling.
The addition of the large new Eccles Theater and the increase to six shows per day at the Egyptian will also result in an increase of approximately 10,000 seats for the entire festival.
“We operate in a community that’s not really festival-prepared,” acknowledged fest VP/managing director of operations Nicole Guillemet. “We’ve always been like gypsies, using what was available. We knew we had some technical problems last year, so we decided to upgrade. We asked the question of what would make the festival a better experience. We’re trying to take control.”
Sundance does not own any of the facilities it uses for the festival, which has been criticized for the less-than-world class standards of its theater facilities, including projection and sound. As the fest has grown in international prominence, these technological shortcomings have increasingly become a sore point with auds and especially filmmakers, who have often had to suffer while seeing their labors of love go before the public for the first time under very subpar circumstances.
With its own funds, Sundance bought four new German Erneman projectors to go with the one it already had, meaning that every Park City venue but the Holiday Cinemas is now equipped with state-of-the art projection equipment.
Construction on the new venue, the Eccles, is due to be completed at the end of this month. It was built principally to serve as a performing arts center for the local high school. But with its 1,000 main floor seats and 300-seat balcony, venue will certainly prove invaluable to the fest in vastly increasing capacity for the most in-demand shows. Logically, the Eccles will serve as the home for the Premiere category, although every film in the dramatic competition will also receive an Eccles unspooling.
The Egyptian, long the festival’s prestige venue and nominal center, was demolished, except for its celebrated facade, and reconstructed. New seating has been put in place under its new roof, old-fashioned theater boxes now overhang from the side walls near the screen and a new projection booth and sound system have been installed.
The new “home theater concept,” in which each section of the fest will be primarily based at one venue, is something fest director of programming Geoffrey Gilmore believes will “create a base for a film, less of a market atmosphere and a lot less running around. If what you want to do is see films in the dramatic competition, you can just stay at the Egyptian all day and eventually you’ll see everything. This way, too, there will be no cross-competing competition films running simultaneously.”
In response to the widely held view that films have always been too tightly scheduled, Gilmore and his staff have scheduled longer breaks between shows, with an eye toward allowing for travel time to another venue or for a meal. Some will groan at the prospect of the new 8:30 a.m. slot at the Egyptian, but Gilmore pointed out that people deal with early morning screenings at Cannes and other fests, and that the opening up of a sixth slot at that venue vastly increases programming opportunities.
Another big change this year will be the orientation of the festival away from Main Street, where the hospitality suite and press center have traditionally been located. Now, the only official fest action taking place in the center of town will be the Egyptian screenings, as the new h.q. for filmmakers, press, hospitality, registration and sponsors will be under one roof at the Shadow Ridge Resort Hotel & Conference Center, which is located near the Park City ski area. Most of the major indie distributors have also booked suites in the hotel so that filmmakers will know where to find them.
The press conferences with participating U.S. filmmakers have been moved up to Monday and Tuesday from the traditional late-in-the-week spot, while directors from the World Cinema section will be hosted at a Wednesday press conference. All press confabs and seminars will be held at the Yarrow.
In recent years, parking and transportation have become major headaches at Sundance. In response, the fest has now doubled the number of shuttles, scheduled them at 10-minute intervals and integrated them with the public Park City bus lines to create a free system organizers hope will work efficiently and encourage visitors to use them rather than to drive.
To deal with the parking crunch, fest has hired 50 additional parking attendants to help direct drivers into available areas.
Although the festival did not pay for the Eccles or the renovation of the Egyptian, Gilmore admitted that all the physical improvements and beefing up of the staff means that “The festival is spending a lot more money this year. But we said, ‘We have to do it.’ ”
Overall budget for the event is $3 million, up from $2 million only two years ago. Coin comes from “increasing” sponsorship and box office sales, and the city of Park City is kicking in more than before.
“Fortunately, the success of the festival has generated more sponsorship,” Gilmore allowed, “and we’re not as strapped as we were in the past. Basically, the festival had gotten so big that we had to make major advancements, which we think we’ve done.”