(On)Line Dancing | Buzz Blog

Thursday, January 20, 2022

(On)Line Dancing

Sundance Film Festival director says virtual screenings are here to stay.

Posted By on January 20, 2022, 4:00 AM

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click to enlarge Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson (top right) and other senior Sundance staff hold a virtual press conference to open the 2022 festival on Thursday, Jan. 20. - SUNDANCE INSTITUTE
  • Sundance Institute
  • Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson (top right) and other senior Sundance staff hold a virtual press conference to open the 2022 festival on Thursday, Jan. 20.

In the future, when the Coronavirus pandemic is behind us, will the Sundance Film Festival continue to offer virtual options for those unable to make the annual trek to Park City?

“Yes,” festival director Tabitha Jackson said Thursday. “Once we discovered how to do that and that we could do that, I personally don’t want to go back on that.”

Jackson—speaking to members of the press at the launch of the 2022 festival—said she prefers not to use the term “virtual” to describe the festival’s online platform, as “there’s nothing un-real about it.” Instead, she repeatedly stressed the idea of “convergence” and touted the work that went into expanding online gathering spaces and preserving the intangible aspects of the festival experience.

“It’s about protecting things that we must not take for granted—freedom of expression, the ability to gather, speaking truth to power, resisting,” Jackson said. “But we are left with joy. Joy is also an operating principle this year.”

Sundance moved to a fully-online format in 2021 and was set to conduct a hybrid event this year, with its traditional screenings, panels and performances held live and online simultaneously. But a surge of COVID-19 cases related to the highly-transmissible omicron variant prompted organizers to shutter in-person programming less than a month before the launch of the 10-day festival.

Jackson said planning discussions over the last two years had focused on capturing the “essence” of what a film festival can and should be. And while there are community losses related to moving audiences online, she said there have been benefits to broadening and diversifying the pool of festival attendees.

“It’s not how we are together, whether we’re in person or online,” Jackson said. “It is that we are together in a moment.”

Beyond the ability to screen films, the Coronavirus pandemic has created new hurdles for the production of films. Kim Yutani, Sundance’s director of programming, said her team went into the festival’s submission and selection process wondering whether it would be “feast or famine.”

“Once again,” she said, “we were really, pleasantly surprised to find that artists found a way to sustain themselves—to make work despite the challenges.”

Yutani said that programmers do not select films with an agenda in mind, but rather the filmmakers themselves respond to issues of the day. She noted that several films in the 2022 slate deal with climate politics, reproductive rights and civil injustices.

“Films speak to each other,” Yutani said. “They speak to the cultural moment and they speak to audiences.”

Despite the move online, Sundance continued to generate significant financial interest by distributors for films in its slate. One of the opening-day films of the 2021 event, “CODA,” was purchased by Apple for a reported $25 million, setting a new Sundance sales record.

Yutani said the success of films like “CODA” show that Sundance is finding films that resonate with buyers. But she added that independent filmmakers are creating that demand for new voices, rather than responding to it.

“It’s important to say that we’re not chasing the market,” Yutani said. “We’re hoping to expand its appetite.” Tickets to individual Sundance screenings remain available, but virtual seating is capped and availability is limited. Jackson emphasized that would-be viewers should make their selections quickly.

“Ticket sales are brisk and healthy,” Jackson said. “They are going fast.”

In addition to its films, the 2022 festival includes experimental and augmented/virtual reality offerings through its New Frontier program. A metaversal hub for those projects, known as the “spaceship,” has been expanded for 2022 and includes spaces for festival guests to navigate and interact with via a digital avatar.

“It worked beyond our wildest dreams last year,” said Shari Frilot, chief curator of New Frontier.

The 2022 Sundance film festival runs from Jan. 20 to Jan. 30.

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