For the first time in its history, Sundance Film Festival 2023 was made available in person, in its usual Park City, Utah location, and online. The last time it was held as an in-person event was in January 2020, back when one did not need to clarify whether an event was available “in person” and/or “remote”. This year marked the official come-back from the pandemic, and Sundance management decided to provide both online and in-person options. Nonetheless, the official messaging of the Sundance upper echelons was clear: they hoped to see us all in Park City. It was about the thin mountain air, they said, and the energy of being around other festival attendants.
I decided to watch the 2023 festival online from the comfort of my living room. Not that I dislike Park City. – I enjoyed the area during Sundance 2020. That year, I decided to go at the last moment, and the hotel cost alone still makes me uncomfortable. Also, as other people booking last minute will know, I did not get to see a single film. Not one. I was in line for a few films, but having joined so late, all I could get was a chat with other late-comers. As one can imagine, it was not a great experience, but I blamed it all on my poor organization.
So I tried to go again last year, in 2022. Then, the in-person option was canceled at the last moment because of COVID safety concerns (it was back when there were fewer mutations of COVID than Greek letters). The price of the already-purchased ticket was not refunded but defaulted to the online option, and Sundance gave a meager $100 to angry patrons like me, spendable only toward Sundance 2023. That did not cover the money I lost on canceled travel and lodging, of course, but it was enough to bring me back this year for Sundance 2023, albeit only online.
As I marathoned my way into eight award-winning films the last weekend, I wondered whether participating remotely will be the new normal or whether it’ll become a parenthesis in the long history of the festival. Will I see Sundance 2024 (and 2025 and 2026) comfortably from my couch? Or will the online option be canceled? If Sundance Film Festival is to survive the competition with other entertainment options and film festivals, will it shift to an online global event, or will it go back to the local elbow-to-elbow festival of the pre-COVID era?
Some commentators noted that this year’s decision to offer an online option was an informal admission of the crisis of movie theaters. If, in 2018, most people (28%) strongly preferred to see movies in the theaters, in June 2020, that percentage had decreased by half, and 36% strongly preferred to stream. These were the early days of the pandemic, but there are no signs that such a trend has reversed. The crisis of movie theaters has two sources: a technological and a socio-cultural one.
Technologically, it is difficult to dispute that live streaming (along with high-definition television and other ancillary innovations) has improved the experience of watching films at home. While movie theaters have tried to compete by providing larger seats and other amenities, it is unclear whether such things add much value to the viewing experience. Further, and most importantly, streaming allowed a much larger group of people to enjoy the same film without having to go to the local theater simultaneously. In the same way that live theatre stopped being profitable when films became widely available, so has streaming largely made movie theaters obsolete.
Socioculturally, COVID showed people it is OK not to go to movie theaters. Many of us used to go to the movies the way we used to go to the malls. It’s there, it’s a good date idea, there are other people, and it’s fun. After the COVID hiatus, most of us found a similar type of enjoyment in our own homes, with the advantages mentioned above. This shift from movie theaters to streaming started before COVID, of course, but things sped up in the last three years. If it is true that these changes are affecting the overall profitability of movie theaters, they are likely affecting indie movie theaters more than the big chains.
I am in the demographic indie movie theaters should target. I have a nostalgic attachment to small shabby theaters with uncomfortable seats and limited options at the concessions. Also, I love indie movies. I love to feel intellectually challenged by something less flashy than Hollywood blockbusters. (I did see the last Spiderman film, but I fell asleep around the time the tension was building up.) TikTok has lost its battle with me, so my attention span can still get me through hours of a slow foreign film with subtitles.
I also love Sundance Film Festival. The fest holds a similar role in my life that the cardinals’ conclave has in the Catholic Church. The Grand Jury meets in what must be a Park City version of the Sistine Chapel and elects each year’s new “popes”.
So I got myself an Online Weekend Award Pass for Sundance Film Festival 2023. For those unfamiliar with the options Sundance offers, there were essentially three this year: the Festival Package ($750, in person; $300, online); Award-Winners Package ($250, In-person; $200, online); and Single Tickets ($25, in person; $20 online). The Festival Package gives you access to ten movies, the days of the “all-you-can-eat” festival tickets are long gone. (You may have noticed that the Festival package offers ten tickets for $750, which is $75 per ticket. That is a lot more than the cost for a single ticket, $25, three times more precisely. If you wonder why anybody would buy a Festival Package instead of ten individual tickets, you are probably not in the demographic that the Festival Package is targeting. Surprisingly, most of those package tickets sold out, indicating that, if anything, they were priced too low.)
The Online Weekend Award Pass that I got gives access to eight films, which can only be watched during the last weekend of the festival after winners are announced. Further, Sundance’s rules on film reservations are pretty difficult to follow. The novice will find this unclear, but buying a pass does not give access to any film, it gives access to the ability to add a film to your “favorite” list, which then gives you access to “buying” the film. If, by the time the winners are announced, a package ticket holder is too slow going through the various steps, the online film one is interested in may have already sold out.
The concept of “selling out”, which in the brick-and-mortar environment of movie theaters translates into the number of seats available, requires some explaining for online streaming. How can online streaming films sell out? One could think of other technological constraints (router speed, cloud space, etc.), but it is unlikely any of those would matter for a film festival. On any movie night at home, thousands of Netflix films are streamed simultaneously by thousands or millions of people. Yet, Sundance could not offer an “online seat” to all of its (much smaller) audience.
If there were indeed some technological barriers, it is unclear why Sundance would sell more festival package tickets than the online seats it has. Ultimately, the only explanation I could come up with is that selling out online seats is just another trick to create exclusivity. By reducing access to patrons who can reserve later, Sundance can raise the price of tickets for patrons who want to reserve earlier.
Worrying that such a conclusion may be too cynical, I asked Sundance itself. Customer Service politely redirected me to the Press Team, and I emailed them several questions. Why do many films sell out online? How does Sundance decide how many tickets to sell and the number of “online seats” available? Why are rules on the reservation system made public after the tickets are sold? The Sundance Press Team declined to comment.
Even with all these arcane limitations, I was able to get access to eight films I was excited to see. However, watching eight films over a short weekend is less than ideal, but I loved the experience and warmly recommend it. Watching multiple indie films at home is quite a treat, particularly in the winter. Not only can you time them as you wish, but you also do not need to wait in line. You can watch them from the TV, computer, tablet, or anywhere else, and you can pick up the phone if something urgent arises without annoying fellow movie-goers. (Those who think phone distractions are detrimental to the enjoyment of a film can shut off their phone at home too.)
Yes, but what about the smaller at-home screen size and missing out on surround sound and the energy of being around many people at a film festival? To those points, I say that it depends. Suppose you saw a film from the very front or the very back of a theater. In that case, you will miss the perfect positioning of your television in your living room, and the same goes for experiencing the sound in a movie theater – seat location matters. As for the company of other moviegoers, the online viewing options can be enjoyed in groups, too – and that’s with people you choose to be with. All in all, it is difficult to convince film lovers that the in-person experience will beat the comforts of the online experience. Particularly when one factor in the additional costs the in-person experience entails (higher ticket prices, standing in line).
“Online seating” is starting to look a lot better than festival attendance. But does Sundance want to cater to at-home viewers? The various technical difficulties and the arcane system of reservations made me wonder about that. Was Sundance purposely limiting the enjoyment of online viewers? Most were excluded from the Sundance Festival experience before COVID, and the Festival generally thrived. It was certainly more elitist, catering mostly to movie industry executives attending corporate parties. Maybe that’s the point of the Sundance Film Festival: it’s not about the indie films it showcases, and it’s not about the natural beauty of Park City. It’s about getting deep-pocketed individuals together in a place where they can spend their money.
If money alone is the prevailing force behind Sundance Film Festival, the online option risks cannibalizing in-person attendance, assuming, of course, the wealthy decide to stay home. Would it be a sound business decision to reduce or eliminate online access to the festival? While I understand the business of creating exclusivity, reducing online participation for the rest of us will be a losing strategy. The problem with sustaining such an elitist strategy, however, boils down to relevance and remaining competitive with other entertainment forms. For the non-elites who enjoy the Sundance Film Festival, bidding wars for successful films had to do with Sundance’s role as a getaway toward the larger public of indie film fans.
When indie film aficionados such as myself could only see indie movies through local theaters, the role of the distributors was crucial, as it decided what films I would have access to. Those distributors would go to Sundance, and whether I would go or not didn’t matter. Now that the technological and sociocultural environment has changed, it is not clear that institutions such as Sundance can effectively compete with other entertainment options. Even the best film screened at Sundance this year will likely be missed by the broader public if another blockbuster television show comes out in the same period.
In such a competitive environment, the role of gatekeepers in the indie film industry seems less effective than it used to be. To maintain relevance, Sundance Film Festival needs to broaden its viewership. Online participation may likely help create excitement around new indie films. Through social media, online viewers might provide the Festival with cost-free promotion.
Will the in-person festival energy be missed from the couch? Maybe. But without broad online participation, indie film festivals like Sundance risk turning into self-referential parties for insiders only. Who cares about that? Other forms of art have gone down that path and now rely more on donations than on ticket sales. (How much money do you spend on operas each year?) Indie film festivals may be next in line to endure this change. Either way, Sundance Film Festival will play a big role in setting the standard for future indie film festivals. I do not see myself becoming a large donor, so I hope Sundance will let me contribute to next year’s Festival from my couch.