With Virtual Panels and Events, Sundance Hopes to Bring the Park City Experience Home

Sundance Film Festival Placeholder
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival/Jonathan Hickerson

Sundance always has pride of position when it comes to the festival calendar: as the first major fest of the year, it often sets the tone for the 12 months of far-flung festival galas and premieres to come. But the 2020 edition of the Park City, Utah, event has an unusual distinction: it was one of only a few fests to take place as normal before the cloud of COVID obscured all the face-to-face interactions that make a film festival more than just a place to watch way too many movies.

Having thus had the better part of a year to prepare for the new normal, the fest is now hoping to do more than just offer a string lineup of virtual screenings. Instead, Sundance will attempt to replicate as many of its in-person events as possible online, from a full slate of panels and Q&As, to meet-and-greets, VR experiences, musical performances and a fully virtual “festival village” with everything from talks to star-gazing sessions.

As producing director Gina Duncan — who, like fest director Tabitha Jackson, took on her new role with the festival over the past year — explains, the idea is to present the fest’s extra-curricular programming as coherently as possible, with one event flowing into another the way they might if encountered in person. “It’s really layered and involved, and designed to mimic what you would see in Park City,” she says. “I think the way we’ve structured this is so smart, because it requires you to fully participate in a way that I think a lot of the online programs have not this year. I was talking with someone the other day and they were like, ‘It’s so hard to do these virtual festivals when I still have the responsibilities of my everyday life.’ So the way we thought about it is that you can feel like you have permission, in the same way you would at a festival, to put on your out-of-office and say, ‘I’m at a screening.’”

For one, although films will be available for participants to stream during a certain window, the fest is encouraging viewers to watch “live,” during what would have been their premiere times, as the screenings will then be followed immediately by virtual Q&As that allow for questions from the “audience.” And as for the multiverse of performances and parties that would usually follow a day of screenings, Sundance has a lineup of music performances through the traditional ASCAP Café, as well as a plethora of virtual networking events for filmmakers and industryites, who can interact and meet in the digital space.

Prominent panel discussions include the Cinema Café, which features artist-on-artist dialogues pairing the likes of Shaka King with Amir “Questlove” Thompson, Robin Wright with Rebecca Hall, and Rita Moreno with Sonia Manzano. The Big Conversation series takes an expansive look at issues that transcend cinema, from a look back at a 1992 Sundance panel on New Queer Cinema (with moderator B. Roby Rich and guests including Andrew Ahn and Lisa Cholodenko) to a science and technology panel, and a conversation on race, history and cinema with “I Am Not Your Negro” director Raoul Peck. Other events include a speculative fiction discussion, and a multidisciplinary event titled Conjuring the Collective: Womxn at Sundance Speakeasy.”

While Duncan stresses the obvious — no matter how well-designed or scheduled, a series of virtual events can’t possibly replicate the community and kismet of in-person gatherings — she does hope that this most unusual edition of Sundance can provide insights on how to broaden the festival’s reach going forward.

“What’s happening right now is causing Sundance to really lean into the values: accessibility, reach, collaborations, safety,” she says. “We were taking all of those things seriously going into the festival pre-pandemic, but this gives us the opportunity to incubate that a little bit. I think there will be a lot of lessons that we’ll be taking. … The thing that I feel is most radical is seeing a festival like Sundance that’s so big opening up and making itself accessible to all.”