Sundance returns in person: Screenings and parties are met with celebration and COVID anxiety

After last year’s canceled in-person festival, the Sundance Film Festival is back (virtually) back to normal for the first time since the pandemic hit in 2020. Although most films are available to watch online in the days Following its releases, the usual mix of moviegoers, industry professionals and press took over Park City for opening night on January 19.

“Long time no see,” exclaimed one happy festival-goer to another as they waited to enter the Eccles, one of Sundance’s main venues. There seemed to be an eagerness for things to get back to “normal,” for Sundance to pick 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 the winter illnesses sweeping their friend groups back home, as well as bemoaning the recent spike in cases of the new COVID-19 subvariant, XBB. .1.5.

It seemed like there was a 50/50 mix of masked and unmasked attendees and volunteers in public spaces like the festival venue at the Sheraton Park City.

“Are we wearing masks? I guess I’ll put mine on so I don’t look like a jerk,” a confused attendee joked to a friend as he waited in line to get a pass.

Meanwhile, some festival-goers showcased truly unique COVID protection solutions, including three who were seen wearing a mini hazmat suit-like helmet, creating unique dystopian moments. Live the cinema!

Opening night headliners include “The Pod Generation,” a sci-fi drama starring Emilia Clarke and Chiwetel Ejiofor; the starring Daisy Ridley, “Sometimes I think about dying”; the Indigo Girls documentary “It’s Only Life After All”; Eugenio Derbez’s vehicle “Radical”; and a couple of midnight horror movies, “Run Rabbit Run” and “birth/rebirth.”

Sundance also made headlines 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 Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. It will be screened on Friday.

The Sundance that has returned is markedly different from the one that last played out in 2020, just months before much of the world went into lockdown and the movie business came to a standstill. Some studio executives have decided not to climb the mountain, preferring to project things from the comfort of home. That annoys sales agents, who believe their chances of triggering bidding wars are diminished without the excitement of a packed opening. And some stars have chosen not to attend, worried they could catch COVID and disrupt shooting schedules.

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

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

Joana Vicente, executive director of the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit organization behind the festival, echoed Redford’s words, while also praising the beauty of coming together.

“There is nothing like being here in person with all of you,” he said shortly before “Radical” premiered. “It is tempting to say that we are back together, that we are back to the way we were before, but the truth is that the world has changed. Our industry is at an inflection point and we can’t just go back to the way we were before. We can only move on…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 accepting the change.

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

As for the parties, the attendees were eager to get back to drinking on the mountain. The “Sometimes I Think About Dying” cast party reached capacity before the festival even began, and IndieWire’s annual Chili Party was packed with industry insiders and members of the fourth estate. The restaurants, where reservations are harder to come by than getting a table at Polo Bar, were depopulated. Even those who hadn’t managed to call ahead, it seemed, were able to eat on opening night.

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

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