Sundance Film Festival Planning Expansion, Online Presence for 2021

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Sundance Film Festival

Organizers are expecting January's edition to take place live in Utah and other indie cinemas around the country and virtually.

Newly installed Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson is pushing ahead with her event's 2021 edition, but is weighing physical and digital options for the festival amid the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

"Although it is fair to say that I had not factored a global pandemic and an international reckoning around racial justice into my job application, I did know that as we write the next chapter in the incredible history of the Sundance Film Festival, I would want to pose a slightly counterintuitive question: 'Where do we begin?'" Jackson asked in a festival blog posted on the Sundance Institute website.

Expect a first-time online component for Sundance. "At the center of all our planning, the 2021 Sundance Film Festival will have an online home, making the festival accessible in a way it never has been before," Jackson said.

The 2020 edition of Sundance took place in January in Park City as the Utah mountain resort welcomed festivalgoers from around the world to crowded movie theaters while the global coronavirus spread began to grab media headlines. Sundance organizers, while acknowledging they were "fortunate" to pull off this year's event, don't want to take public health risks next year.

So while the prestigious film festival will continue to be based in Utah, Sundance will also align with at least 20 indie and community cinemas across the U.S. as it looks to build a "grand partnership of communities." Sundance is in early talks with cinemas in Los Angeles, New York City, Austin, Louisville, Nashville, Atlanta, Detroit and Mexico City.

"Utah has been the home of the festival for close to 40 years and always will be, but the 2021 festival will extend beyond Utah and will be co-created by and for different communities in different locations, preserving what is magical about experiencing films on the big screen with others — even if at a smaller and socially distanced scale," Jackson wrote.

As indie cinemas are brought into the Sundance fold, each will host a bespoke slate of movies from the festival's official selection, alongside complementary titles that each theater programs. "This plan acknowledges the vital role of the independent cinema network in our ecosystem," Jackson stated.

The Sundance Institute during the 2020 edition named Jackson as its new Sundance Film Festival director, replacing the outgoing director John Cooper. But the U.K. filmmaker has had anything but a smooth transition as she also prepares for the institute's 40th anniversary in 2021.  

Sundance is also following Cannes, Tribeca, SXSW, Toronto and other major stops on the festival circuit that have already been canceled, postponed or gone with a hybrid model of live and online events. Last week, the Cannes virtual market was held as a digital alternative.

Marquee festivals are also striking industry partnerships elsewhere to stage virtual events. YouTube and Tribeca Enterprises co-produced a new online-only indie cinema showcase, We Are One: A Global Film Festival, as it screened films and other programming from some of the most acclaimed film festivals worldwide from May 29 to June 7.

Venice is sticking to its original plan to hold its festival from Sept. 2-12. And a slimmed-down Toronto Film Festival plans a first-time online platform in September, with in-person theater screenings for around 50 indie film titles during the first five days, but only if public health officials give a greenlight. 

The Sundance preparations for next year also include a possible halt to in-person theatrical screenings if public health conditions show red. "Our model intentionally allows us to dial up or dial down the live gatherings (especially in our Utah home) and festival length as conditions dictate," Jackson wrote.