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Sundance 2021: Covering a Festival Digitally

How an American film festival has gone digital in times of lockdown.

by Amy Smith

With the world on lockdown, the Creative Arts is one of many industries that have been gravely impacted by the severe restrictions. There is simply no safe way to go to concerts, galleries or cinemas during these tough times. Not only have the closures of cinemas impacted films being released to the general public, but it also has meant that film festivals have had to adapt. They either go online, or they cannot go on at all.

Over the past year, as a film critic for numerous publications, I have been lucky enough to virtually travel for London Film Festival, Raindance Film Festival, and the upcoming Glasgow Film Festival. However, I also had the fortune of being able to virtually travel to the US, as I was accredited to cover the 2021 Sundance Film Festival from the comfort of my home.

Usually held in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival is the first major festival of the year. Previous years have given us films such as Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014), Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell (2019). Out of this year’s major award contenders, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman (2020) and Florian Zeller’s The Father (2020) both had their premieres at Sundance Film Festival.

Courtesy Kevin Kotzian via AP

Usually, Sundance Film Festival is spread out over two weeks, giving film fans and critics a chance to walk between screenings, attend Q&A screenings and have social meetings to break the days up.

Whilst these were still somewhat possible with the online version this year, there was pressure to spend as much time watching as many films as possible before they disappeared from the system for good. I am glad I had the experience at the more relaxed London Film Festival schedule, because it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of content available.

It can sound like all fun and no work when you initially hear that there is free access to films, but many people in the press – myself included – are not there simply to watch films. Spread out over the time watching films, we are reporting coverage about the festival and reviewing what we watch. This is one of the benefits of covering a festival digitally, as there is no need to run from a cinema to get to a notepad or laptop.

When sitting in your own home, you can go straight from TV screen to Word Document and start typing, getting the reviews out quicker than ever.

At the end of the week, I clocked out with 28 feature films and 41 short films watched. Even with that amount, I just about covered a third of the feature films that were in the program. There is so much choice, and the variety offered at Sundance means that there is something for everyone. Whether you want to see the major award season contenders with the world premiere of Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), explore directorial debuts from actors such as Robin Wright in Land (2021) or delve into some of the more unknown choices, Sundance is a great festival to find something new and to get a first look at what are going to be some of the biggest films of the year.

Already, several films have been picked up by distributors and will be shown to the general public by the end of the year. Apple TV ended up making the biggest purchase in Sundance history when they spent $25 million on CODA (2021), a coming-of-age tale with a deaf perspective. Netflix, NEON and A24 have also spent big already, and there are certainly more purchases still to come over the next few weeks.

As stressful as the festival experience can be sometimes, meeting deadlines and having the fear of missing out on a certain film because of the packed schedule, I will always love the madness of it all. I am incredibly lucky to be where I am right now, with the opportunity to watch these films for free, getting to do what I love by writing about them, and promoting them when they are eventually released to the general public. Whilst I would love the experience of attending in-person one day, I am glad the online system allows me to “travel the world” and watch as many films as I can.


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