Getting Ready for a Virtual Sundance in an Awards Season That Feels Very Different

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

Last year at this time, there was some speculation in the entertainment press that a number of unsuspecting attendees at the Sundance Film Festival who had fallen ill with severe flu-like symptoms may in fact have been exposed to COVID-19 without knowing it. The annual Park City festival began its 11-day run — from Jan. 23-Feb. 2 — just days after the first known case of the highly contagious coronavirus was confirmed in Washington state.

The Hollywood Reporter, now our sister publication, posted a story on May 6 with the headline “Was Sundance a ‘First Petri Dish’ of Coronavirus in the States?” The writer of the piece, Tatiana Siegel, had interviewed more than a dozen festivalgoers who spoke of symptoms, including violent coughing and breathing problems, that were more acute than those associated with a bad flu.

“A swath of attendees, including festival regulars and at least one high-profile actor, became sicker than ever before,” she wrote, “leading some to later believe they had early, undocumented cases of COVID-19.” I don’t think anything was ever proved either way, but as the virus began to spread last year, Cannes canceled its festival and its market went virtual. Both the Toronto and New York fall festivals also largely went online.

And, of course, given the enormous rise in cases in the U.S., which currently number 25.3 million (and deaths, so far totaling 420,000), this year’s Sundance festival, running Jan. 28-Feb. 3, is going virtual.

As we recently reported, the Cannes Film Festival will likely push back its date from May to July and is vowing to host an in-person event. Meanwhile, as we wrote in our story, the Palais des Festivals, where celebrities walk up the famed red-carpet steps to attend gala premieres, has been converted into a “Vaccinodrome” where locals can receive the new COVID vaccine.

While I would like nothing more than to stroll down the Croisette en route to the Palais and exchange hugs and handshakes with industry figures and fellow journalists, I just can’t imagine being in close proximity with tens of thousands of people for the foreseeable future. That seems so foreign to me.