Can Sundance Survive COVID? Festival Director Tabitha Jackson Opens Up About the Tough Decision to Go All-Virtual

Early this month, Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson made a decision that she had been assiduously trying to avoid. She did not want a repeat of what happened in 2021 when the Park City festival was forced to go virtual in the face of the raging coronavirus. At the time, Jackson gathered a group of filmmakers on Zoom for a get-to-know-you call in which they discussed their cinematic influences. Art, she reminded them, is a way of leaving an indelible mark on the world around us, an acute need that can be traced back to early cave paintings.

“Tabitha talked about early people leaving handprints on walls to say, I was here and existed and I made this thing,” recalls Sian Heder, director of “CODA.” “Then we held our hands up to the Zoom screen so we could virtually touch each other. It was a powerful moment.”

This year was supposed to be different, with the connections forged between filmmakers like Heder and other artists solidified over coffee or drinks, at after-parties or in theater lobbies between screenings. But then disaster struck. On Jan. 4, with cases of COVID surging in Park City and the tiny ski resort’s health care system buckling under the strain of rampant infections, Jackson bowed to the inevitable and canceled Sundance’s plans to return as an in-person festival. When Sundance starts on Jan. 20, films will debut online, audience responses will be measured not by standing ovations but by tweets, and an event that was intended to commemorate a grand revival of indie cinema will instead unfold over livestreams and laptops.

Jackson did everything she could to save the festival from going all virtual. In the lead-up to the cancellation, she and her team announced they would provide booster shots to attendees, unveiled ambitious initiatives to test guests and instituted strict masking requirements. They even toyed with delaying the festival. But omicron and a pandemic that stubbornly refuses to fade to black had other plans.

“Don’t think we didn’t explore every option,” Jackson told Variety just hours after Sundance pivoted to a virtual edition for the second year in a row. “Had there been any alternative that was safe, we would have taken it.”

But Sundance had vowed that if it was going to ask large swaths of the indie film community to make the trek up the mountain in the middle of a public health crisis, it was going to be guided by science. And what the epidemiologists and medical experts it was consulting were telling the festival’s leadership was alarming. Summit County, the region of Utah where Park City lies, was being slammed with record numbers of cases of the coronavirus, and the peak was scheduled to hit in the middle of the 10-day festival. Because of the highly transmissible nature of omicron and its tendency to lead to breakthrough cases of COVID, vaccine mandates alone wouldn’t be enough to ensure that Sundance could avoid becoming a super-spreader.

“There’s been a practically vertical increase in the number of cases,” says Jackson. “When we received projections that forecast a peak transmission right in the middle of our festival, that was the tipping point. Omicron might be less severe than other variants, but the speed of transmission has created a staffing crisis. The town is already losing staff to run snowplows and emergency services, so we couldn’t responsibly proceed.”

Delaying things by pushing the event into the spring was also ruled out. “Even though the peak is forecast to happen in the middle of the festival we don’t know what’s going to be happening two weeks on or two months on,” Jackson says. Moreover, Jackson was aware that the film industry calendar comprises various signposts, with Sundance kicking off the year before other festivals such as SXSW, Tribeca and Cannes finish up the first half of the season. Pushing Sundance could impact those events.

“We’re part of an ecosystem and other people have events, so we want to respect that,” says Jackson.

The result was a decision that Jackson dubs “heartbreaking,” as well as financially costly. Sundance is a nonprofit, and when it pulled the plug on its in-person gathering, it had already spent heavily on renting and building out spaces and promoting the event. Then there are the filmmakers and executives who booked flights and hotel rooms to attend, many of whom are struggling to get refunds without incurring significant penalties. Art-house moviemaking is a shoestring enterprise, so those kinds of costs are painful to endure.

“The financial hit is significant,” says Jackson. “It costs a lot of money to put on a live event, and two weeks out there’s a lot of costs that can’t be recouped. It’s a hit to us, and it’s a hit to our artists.”

Sundance had embraced a hybrid model even before omicron arrived on the scene. Every film in the competition was intended to premiere in a theater before debuting several hours later online. But the move to an exclusively digital platform has ruffled some feathers, particularly among the sales agents who try to capitalize on positive audience response to land a big deal for their films. “Final Cut,” a zombie movie from Oscar-winning director Michel Hazanavicius, pulled out of the festival, and other films could follow suit.

“I would hope that they wouldn’t drop out, since being online was always a component of the film festival, and they knew that when they accepted our invitation,” says Gina Duncan, Sundance’s producing director. “But we also know that it’s a possibility.”

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Jackson, who took over the festival in 2020 after heading Sundance’s documentary film program, sounds disappointed about the move to a virtual event, noting mournfully that she won’t be able to break in her new snow boots on Park City’s main street. But she also refuses to be dejected by the turn of events. Instead, she says she’s focused on fine-tuning Sundance’s digital program- ming and finding ways to revive Q&As and discussions that were planned to take place in person as online events. Members of Sundance’s programming team say that Jackson’s good humor and vision have helped them navigate a calamitous two years.

“She lifts us up all the time,” says Kim Yutani, Sundance’s director of programming. “Each day there are new challenges, and holding together a team and reinventing ourselves continuously has been tricky for all of us. But something that Tabitha is really great at is always being the optimist.”

COVID introduced an unprecedented challenge to Sundance and festivals like it, plunging them into uncertain times when the viability of hosting a global gathering of Hollywood power brokers and cinephiles is either an opportunity to celebrate the power of film or the potential to get a lot of people very, very sick. During the peaks and valleys of the pandemic, some festivals have been canceled entirely, others have delayed until cases declined, and a handful, such as Cannes, have managed to come back fully, or been relaunched as combination virtual and live events, as was the case with the Toronto Film Festival. At each festival that did go forward with an in-person component, a number of attendees contracted the coronavirus.

Beyond the logistical headaches, COVID has also exposed major changes in how consumers watch movies — shifts in behavior that could spell trouble for the viability of art-house film, at least in its big-screen incarnation. With theaters closed for much of 2020, consumers became more comfortable with streaming or renting movies on demand, and while the bulk of cinemas made it through the crisis intact, older audiences — the category’s bread and butter — have been hesitant to return and risk exposure to the virus. In recent months, a staggering number of well-reviewed art-house releases, including such Oscar bait as “Belfast,” “Nightmare Alley,” “Licorice Pizza” and “C’mon C’mon,” have collapsed at the box office.

“I’m worried about what it means for the sustainability of the filmmakers,” says Jackson. “We’re platform agnostic, but we celebrate and revere the theatrical experience. We need to make sure there continues to be an outlet for that work.”

Part of Sundance’s role, Jackson and her team believe, can be to broaden the base of film lovers, and though screening movies digitally may have started as a pandemic-era concession, it could play a central part in the effort. Going forward, Sundance leaders say they will always maintain some sort of virtual component as a way of allowing people who don’t have the time or can’t afford to make the trip to a pricey ski town for 10 days to watch the type of indie films that the festival was created to highlight.

“I got really excited in terms of the number of people who came to the festival virtually last year,” says Duncan. “They didn’t just see a film. They saw lots of films. That is what’s exciting because we are engaging with a new generation. We need to cultivate young audiences because so many art-house cinemas are struggling to connect with this demographic and only appeal to older crowds.”

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Cooper Raiff (who also directs) and Dakota Johnson star in drama “Cha Cha Real Smooth.” Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Heder says that when “CODA,” a film about the only hearing member of a deaf family living in a fishing community, premiered virtually, she was able to share the experience with a much wider audience.

“The thing that was beautiful about the virtual festival is it was democratized in a way that felt so important,” says Heder. “A festival can feel like so out of reach beyond the elite world of people who can afford to go to Park City. But when it was virtual, my parents’ friends went to Sundance, and my neighbors went to Sundance, and the Gloucester fisherman whose boat we used and his big Italian family went to Sundance. It became something everyone can participate in.”

Cinema owners believe that once COVID is over those ticket buyers will return, but the truth is that part of the indie film business was imperiled even before the coronavirus appeared on the scene. Films such as “Brittany Runs a Marathon” and “Blinded by the Light” scored massive distribution deals when they premiered in Sundance, only to be met with public indifference when they debuted in cinemas. These kinds of movies, emphasizing human stories about real-life problems, haven’t become extinct. Instead, they have found a second life on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon and Apple, which have spent lavishly to mount or acquire films such as “The Power of the Dog” or “The Tragedy of Macbeth” that share an indie spirit and DNA with the kind of movies championed by Sundance. Even though some directors and agents are upset that their work won’t have a theatrical bow in Park City, the fact remains that most of the films would have had a limited rollout in cinemas, if they had one at all.

“Right now, my focus is on the fact that seven streaming companies have allocated $100 billion to make and buy content in 2022,” says John Sloss, the founder of Cinetic and a veteran sales agent. “That’s an insane amount of money. What is the point of ringing your hands and despairing?”

Even as the theatrical market for Sundance titles has shriveled, streaming giants’ insatiable need for buzzy and exclusive content has bolstered prices. “CODA,” for instance, may have debuted virtually, but it set a new high-water mark for Sundance deals when it sold to Apple for $25 million. Other films that debuted in 2021, such as “Summer of Soul” and “Passing,” landed equally splashy pacts; those two sold for $12 million and $15.7 million respectively.

“It still enhances the experience to have your film screen in a theater and to get the buzz from an in-person audience,” says Glen Basner, head of FilmNation, the production company behind “Late Night” and “The Nest.” “But going virtual isn’t hurting sales. A lot of films sold at last year’s Sundance.”

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Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal star in “Sharp Stick,” directed by Lena Dunham. Sundance Institute

On paper, there are several movies that could spark bidding wars when they screen at the upcoming festival. They include “Sharp Stick,” a dramedy directed by Lena Dunham about a young woman’s sexual awakening; “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” a love story with Dakota Johnson; and “TikTok, Boom,” a documentary about the red-hot social media platform. Many of these films were shot and produced during the pandemic, a sign, Sundance argues, that the indie film scene has found a way to survive and thrive during an industry-rattling crisis.

“It’s an incredible testament to the perseverance and resilience of these filmmakers that so much work of such a high quality has nevertheless been made even before we got to the other side of this pandemic,” says Jackson.

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Last year, Sundance invested heavily in launching an online platform that didn’t just stream movies and host interviews with talent; it offered up innovative ways for filmmakers to assemble online. The festival gave ticket buyers the option of creating digital avatars that enabled them to explore 3D spaces where they could interact with other participants in virtual lounges, cocktail bars and after-parties. It may not have been able to replicate Park City’s thin mountain air, but it did contribute to a feeling of community. And it is in those spaces that Jackson hopes valuable discussions will take place about the direction that the movie business needs to go as it grapples with the shifts brought on by streaming, the continued challenges of amplifying diverse voices, and the persistent threat of a pandemic that has unsettled the way movies are made and enjoyed. There are reasons to look back wistfully at the way things were, Jackson admits, but there are also opportunities to be seized in this period of change.

“The future is exciting,” says Jackson. “We are all part of writing that next chapter, and so we need to try to make it what we want it to be and not just be responsive only to our fears and the dark things that are happening in the world. We need to work with agency to pick stories that we want to tell each other and change the way we see the world.”

So, yes, Jackson is disappointed that she won’t be able to greet thousands of movie lovers in the packed auditoriums and makeshift cinemas that line Park City, but she’s also thankful that the festival has still found a way to bring people back together. There’s just one label that she absolutely, steadfastly refuses to embrace when it comes to describing Sundance’s 2022 edition.

“There’s nothing virtual about this festival,” says Jackson. “The feelings are real, the work is real, the responses are real, the emotion is real, and the effect on an audience is real. There’s nothing synthetic about it. We’re all going to be gathering around these artists and lifting their work into the culture.”