Sundance Film Festival Posts Largest-Ever Audience With Virtual 2021 Edition

The Sundance Film Festival saw its biggest-ever audience with a digitally focused 2021 edition.

On Monday, the Sundance Institute reported that its pandemic-era event — which took place both online and in-person in 20 cities across the country over seven days from Jan. 28 through Feb. 3 — reached a total audience 2.7 times larger than at the typical 11 day Park City, Utah edition.

As Sundance mostly streamed its 2021 content — including the U.S. Grand Jury prize winner CODA — to online viewers in all 50 states and additionally in 120 countries, the festival recorded 251,331 views of feature and short films through its bespoke online platform and TV apps.

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With an estimated average of two individuals per household for each film view, Sundance fest organizers estimate they had over 500,000 views for the film program. That’s despite screening far fewer feature films, or 73 titles this year, compared to the festival’s typical 120 features.

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Shortened to seven days, compared to the usual 11 days, the Sundance Institute’s mostly virtual festival had film lovers this year scrolling to view feature-length and short movies on a bespoke digital platform, rather than moving on the ground among theaters in Park City to take in premieres, events and talks, as in the past.

With a hybrid format much like that of Toronto, London and New York — go online, and into physical theaters and drive-in venues where possible, with capacity restrictions — the big idea for Sundance this year was countrywide screening partnerships with indie cinemas and cultural organizations well beyond Utah to ensure, where allowed, the buzz and collective spirit of a traditional Sundance premiere.

Fest organizers before Sundance kicked off on Jan. 28 called it all a big experiment with no assurance audiences would turn out, digitally or otherwise, to embrace a hybrid format brought on by the public health danger of the COVID-19 crisis. “It’s been rewarding to see the way adventurous audiences everywhere engaged with our program and platform, and of course we are delighted to have met and even exceeded our goal of expanding the reach and community for independent film in this challenging year,” Sundance Institute CEO Keri Putnam said in a statement.

Online seat limits for feature streams were set by individual rights-holders, and the film and series programs were geo-blocked to the U.S. market. Festival director Tabitha Jackson added Sundance will continue digging into the audience data for its first-ever hybrid online and in-theater event, but the early results indicate a hybrid virtual and in-theater Sundance may be a new normal.

“There is a lot still to learn but we are delighted that a combination of online and in-person participation, innovative social spaces, hard work, and a lot of crossed-fingers came together to expand and connect audiences for the incredible slate of work we were lucky enough to program this year,” Jackson said in her own statement.

Sundance also reported that 85 percent of its festival content was sold via $15 single tickets, with the rest viewed with passes. And despite no press and industry traveling to Park City due to a surging coronavirus crisis, the festival expanded virtual attendance as 1800 industry members and 1272 press were accredited to participate in Sundance, up five percent from 2020 when the event was held on the ground in Utah.

And international entertainment execs took advantage of Sundance’s online platform as the festival industry representation rose from 26 countries in 2020 to 41 countries in 2021, and for press from 33 countries in 2020 to 41 countries this year. Additionally, the festival’s efforts to increase inclusion for its press corps saw the number from underrepresented communities rise from 51 members in 2020 to 80 members in 2021, with those participating receiving a grant to help underwrite their work at Sundance.