From the second you strap yourself into the seat for the flight to Salt Lake City and until you see that blue polyester again a week later, you know Sundance is going to be a secretly miserable experience.
Once the cabin door closes behind you with a pneumatic fsshh, it’s just like when you went away to camp, except then you still believed that eating s’mores and throwing a baseball badly could build character.
Now you know better. But you’re still going, aren’t you?
Once everyone has trekked up I-80 to Park City, it becomes clear that Sundance is only about films and schmoozing for the first two days.
After that, it’s about teenage survival skills. That, and the food you’re not going to get.
You think you have power, but when you realize the volunteers in duct tape-colored coats don’t care if you run an agency and don’t react with fear to the sound of your name, a nasty sense of deja vu sets in: The fest seems suddenly like you’ve re-enrolled in a tiny school where mom and dad will never find you. And they won’t care if you never come back.
Never have so many privileges been stripped from so many so quickly.
The registration process at the Shadow Ridge creates the illusion that lowly assistants and heads of companies are suddenly on the same level, at least temporarily: People smile and high-five each other as they shuffle down the narrow corridor.
And if you’ve ever seen a total stranger making $20,000 a year having her ass kissed by people with entourages because she holds one extra ticket to “Chuck and Buck,” you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Another way the production proletariat becomes one with their bosses is to go to a premiere screening at the Eccles Arts Center, get their tickets punched, and then have someone take the stubs and get 20 of their new best friends in the door. Worth a lunch or two back in civilization.
And, as in high school, there are “mixers” designed to make the new arrivals feel at home. But here, the festgoers endure something they never would at home: Outside Cisero’s and the River Horse, beefy security on every festival night keeps a line of hopefuls standing in Alaskan temperatures, begging to be let in to eat the same lousy food. And, as if channeling their long-dormant inner frat animal, they fight like dogs to get their hands on the cold pizza and lite beer.
Private gatherings, the Sundance equivalent of the high school clique party at the cool kid’s house, have always provided the sensible alternative, the only refuge from the great unwashed, who trade in party location information as if it’s currency for an underground stock exchange.
Sensible, that is, until everyone else arrives, and the secret is out.
At that point, there’s really no place left, unless one of the faux-Bavarian hotels up the mountain happens to be throwing an “official” party. In other words, the kind of party with plenty of food, enough room for everyone — and zero interest. Everyone chooses the place with the impossibly full list and no fire exit.
It struck me one night at such a party as I sampled the unappetizing sushi and cold bread, kept at subzero temperatures by the Wasatch mountains, that even the well-connected suffer from freshman angst, even after all these years of going to Utah.
“Man, I want to go home,” whined one otherwise powerful exec, his delicate fingers not quite touching the icy food. “I just want a salad. A chicken salad.” He stared balefully at the room full of ski bum-looking creative execs grateful for the hummus they had been able to scrounge.
As I left, a crush at the door made the whole thing feel like the popular kids throwing the party had just allowed the jocks and the cool girls inside and wanted everyone else to go suck on the snow. Which, of course, is exactly what it was.
A restaurant dinner — if you ever get in — is even worse.
Not only do you have to plunk down $60 on your credit card for every person on your reservation, but you can never find them at dinner time.
The result is like Parents’ Weekend, where the kid is nowhere to be found, and the restaurant staff is unforgiving. Harried execs troll Main Street to find someone — anyone — to fill the reservation.
This creates the amusing juxtaposition of people pretending to be equals who would never return each other’s calls back in the real world. But if the underdogs either carry a few extra tickets, or know the dirt on a party later that night, they’re in.
But even when you get a table, it feels like you’re at McDonald’s and can only stay for 20 minutes before being shooed out.
At the rustic Zoom eatery at the bottom of Main Street, two producers were told, at the end of their $200 meal, that “we cannot offer you coffee and dessert. We need your table for the next party.”
Only after a series of expletives did the coffee and flourless chocolate cake arrive.
At the Lakota across the street, an adjacent restaurant that shall remain nameless found a way to make the cashmere-swathed festgoers rejected at the door feel special: The staff charged each a few bucks to lead them through the kitchen and into the party through the back way.
Share and share alike
The real reason Sundance is a hit is that after it becomes clear you’re not buying or selling anything, everyone shares the same communal suffering.
Latenight stragglers, who strike out at restaurants, private parties or film after-parties, can be found at the edge of town, at the 7-Eleven.
You know the one I mean.
I saw people I know behind those windows, hiding their hot dogs and Slurpees from prying eyes.
So have a heart: If you go to lunch today and see a young man with delicate hands gratefully inhaling a chicken salad, try not to pity him. He’s been back a week. Just let him acclimate himself to being back in Hollywood.
Which, as you know, is not at all like high school.