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Analysis: Sundance returns to Park City, with all of the excitement — and the annoyances

By Jay Hamburger - Park Record | Jan 17, 2023
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Festival-goers wait in line to enter the Filmmakers Lounge during the second day of the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, in downtown Park City.
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No parking signs stand along Sidewinder Drive during the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, in Park City.

The Sundance Film Festival returns to Park City this week after a two-year hiatus forced by the pandemic.

But will the festival that unfolds across the community over the 11-day run really be back to what Parkites remember from the pre-coronavirus era?

The festival for the last 25-plus years, in all its chaos, made daily chores difficult, created traffic jams even worse than the typical ones and drew a convergence of crowds of Hollywood insiders, independent-film lovers and celebrity gawkers. Up-and-coming filmmakers and little-known actors and actresses competed for space on the Main Street sidewalks with modern-day legends of the silver screen. Street preachers warned the crowds of a hellish future even as street musicians nearby played a heavenly tune, just hoping a passerby could spare some change.

Parkites tell tales of being in the theater for the world premieres of any number of breakout hits months before anyone else saw them. Many can still vividly retell the story of a celebrity encounter from decades ago. They also recall the liquor store lines, shortages on grocery store shelves and the time, or times, a sport utility vehicle, with an out-of-state license plate, was left, uninvited, in their driveway. Sundance is something that divides the community, still, regardless of someone’s neighborhood, their tenure in Park City or whether they are a movie buff, a front-line worker or a person just trying to collect their mail at the Main Street post office.

Some see the festival as a lucrative 11-day stretch in industries like lodging, restaurant and transportation, but others prefer to sidestep the hubbub altogether by heading to the slopes, which can famously be free of Sundance crowds, or by leaving town altogether for a midwinter escape.

The festival, with the annoyances and the excitement, on Thursday begins with a set of opening-day screenings that will mark the first in-person Sundance since the 2020 edition closed just weeks before the pandemic shutdowns. It is difficult to predict what will be witnessed in Park City during Sundance, but there have been hints of the possibilities in recent months, as City Hall, festival organizers and the wider community finalized plans. Sundance itself in December told Mayor Nann Worel and the Park City Council the preparations for the festival took into account the possibility the event could be similar in scale to the one in 2020.

Some of what will, with near certainty, transpire in Park City during Sundance includes:

The arrival of large crowds: The festival crowds are sizable even in a community with a robust tourism industry that draws skiers and snowboarders in the winter and recreation and cultural crowds in the summer and fall. There could be shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the Main Street sidewalks in pre-pandemic festivals, the lines were out the door at some of the restaurants and lodging prices were some of the highest of the year. The festival in 2020 drew nearly 117,000 attendees, an economic study found. The Park City Chamber/Bureau recently reported lodging occupancy during Sundance was projected at 64%, down from the 70% and 80% ranges in 2020 and 2019. The 64% figure did not take into account bookings or cancellations since Dec. 15. If the actual number this year resembles the projection, there would be enough people in Park City to create the atmosphere, and crowd-related issues, of before.

Lots of traffic: The lines of cars are, simply, a part of the festival. Kearns Boulevard can be a mess with the largest screening room in Park City at the Eccles Center and the entryways can be jammed with festival-goers added to the commuters and skiers. The Main Street core can be at a standstill. Even as Park City leaders and festival organizers each year press the availability of the theater buses and the wider transit system, with notable successes, the traffic can be miserably bad. There is a high probability of traffic jams this year, and City Hall recently essentially conceded that will likely be the case. The municipal government in late 2022 released a calendar that predicted the worst traffic days of the winter. All but three days of Sundance were categorized as maximum peak days while the other three were labeled peak days, meaning officials understood long before the opening Sundance traffic would exceed the capacity of the roads.

The temporary remaking of Main Street: There is only one Sundance screening room on Main Street – the Egyptian Theatre – but the shopping, dining and entertainment strip plays a central role during the festival. Crews in recent days were in the Main Street core readying temporary locations for the festival. Some of them are Sundance venues, like the Filmmaker Lodge, or organized by official sponsors, such as the Acura Festival Village, and are included on the map of venues. Numerous other corporate interests, though, arrive in Park City on a temporary basis with Sundance being a prime marketing opportunity. Park City leaders prior to the festival approved a series of licenses needed for the temporary setups, providing a preview of the transformation of Main Street. Chase Sapphire will have a significant space at 573 Main St., the Canada Goose Basecamp will be nearby at 558 Main St. and the White Claw Shore Club is set to open at 608 Main St.

An assortment of police calls: The Park City Police Department is the primary agency responsible for law enforcement during Sundance, and the officers are usually jammed with numerous calls related to the crowds. There are typically parking problems, noise complaints, parties and drunkenness that require a response by officers. Those sorts of calls are commonplace during other busy stretches of the year, but Sundance also oftentimes generates unusual cases for the police. There could be celebrity-led demonstrations designed to advance wide-ranging causes, the antics of film promoters may attract the attention of law enforcement or, in at least one case during a previous Sundance, a police report involving shoes that were meant to be given as swag to celebrities instead going to hotel workers. The list of reports over the years has also included Satan “things” on Main Street, the theft of 40 cases of beer and a man riding a camel distributing fliers promoting a film that had not been accepted into Sundance.


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