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Sundance Returns in Person: Screenings and Parties Met With Celebration and COVID Anxiety

Sundance Film Festival
Michael Buckner

After last year’s cancelled in-person fest, the Sundance Film Festival has returned to (pretty much) normal for the first time since the pandemic arrived in 2020. Although the bulk of the films are available to watch online in the days following their premieres, the usual blend of cinema buffs, industry professionals and press took over Park City for the Jan. 19 opening night.

“Long time no see,” one happy festival-goer exclaimed to another while waiting to get into the Eccles, one of Sundance’s main hubs. There seemed to be an eagerness for things to return to “normal,” for Sundance to pick back up where it left off more than two years and two virtual iterations ago.

Unfortunately, COVID was still the talk of the town, as attendees gossiped about winter illnesses that ripped through their friend groups back home, as well as lamenting the recent rise in cases of the new COVID-19 subvariant, XBB.1.5.

It appeared that there was a 50/50 mix of masked and unmasked attendees and volunteers in public spaces such as the festival headquarters at the Sheraton Park City.

“Are we wearing masks? I guess I’ll put mine on so I don’t look like an asshole,” quipped one confused attendee to a friend while waiting in line for a pass.

Meanwhile, some festival goers exhibited truly unique COVID protection solutions, including three that were spotted wearing headgear akin to a mini-hazmat suit, creating uniquely dystopian moments. Vive le cinema!

Among the biggest opening night titles were “The Pod Generation,” a sci-fi drama starring Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor; The Daisy Ridley-starrer “Sometimes I Think About Dying”; Indigo Girls documentary “It’s Only Life After All”; the Eugenio Derbez vehicle “Radical”; and a pair of Midnight horror movies, “Run Rabbit Run” and “birth/rebirth.”

Sundance also made news on Thursday, with the surprise announcement that Doug Liman, the director of action epics like “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” has made his first documentary, “Justice.” The film will examine the sexual assault allegations that nearly derailed the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh. It will screen on Friday.

The Sundance that has returned is markedly different than the one that last unfolded in 2020, mere months before much of the world went into lockdown and the movie business ground to a standstill. Some studio executives have decided not to make the trek up the mountain, preferring to screen things from the comfort of home. That’s upset sales agents, who believe their chances of sparking bidding wars decrease without the excitement that comes from a packed premiere. And a few stars have opted not to attend, worried that they might get COVID and disrupt shooting schedules.

At the screening of “Radical,” festival organizers portrayed the new festival, one that straddled both the digital and physical worlds, as an exciting new development.

“Even if you find yourself far from Park City you’re part of an exciting evolution of the Sundance vision,” Robert Redford, the festival’s founder, intoned in a sizzle reel before the movie. “We’re all here to…celebrate this generation’s most innovative storytellers.”

Joana Vicente, CEO of the Sundance Institute, the non-profit behind the festival, echoed Redford’s words, while also hailing the beauty of coming together.

“There is nothing like being here in person with all of you,” she said shortly before “Radical” was unspooled. “It’s tempting to say we’re back back together, back to the way things were before, but the truth is the world has changed. Our industry is at an inflection point and we can’t just go back to what we were before. We can only go forward…we must learn and evolve and it all starts here today.”

Eugene Hernandez, who, like Vicente, is a newcomer to Sundance’s leadership, also argued that Sundance was embracing change.

“Sundance has always been about looking forward, and we have so much to look forward to this week and ahead into the future,” he said to loud applause.

As for the parties, attendees were eager to get back to imbibing in the mountains. The “Sometimes I Think About Dying” cast party hit capacity before the festival even began, and IndieWire’s annual Chili Party was full of industry folks and members of the fourth estate. Restaurants, where reservations are harder to come by than scoring a table at Polo Bar, were underpopulated. Even those who hadn’t managed to call ahead, it seems, were able to eat on opening night.

Additional reporting from Owen Gleiberman, Zack Sharf, Rebecca Rubin, Peter Debruge and Matt Donnelly.