Sundance: Film Festival Toppers Discuss Reimagined Virtual Event

Sundance Film Festival Director Tabitha Jackson
Courtesy of Sundance

"I can be a festival director and not wear pants," fest director Tabitha Jackson joked while participating in an opening online press conference via Zoom.

Sundance Film Festival director Tabitha Jackson pointed to one unexpected advantage of going virtual with a reimagined 2021 edition during a surging coronavirus pandemic.

"I can be a festival director and not wear pants," Jackson joked during an opening online press conference held via Zoom as Sundance kicked off on Thursday. But as Jackson and fellow festival execs discussed radical digital innovations required to mount a virtual event this year, the advantages of enlarged audience reach and access online came to the fore.

"We're always going to have too many people fit into Park City. This additional dimension is very exciting," Jackson said, touching on this year's online hub, as Sundance organizers look to 2022 and beyond. Starting today, Sundance will roll out a novel virtual streaming platform and U.S. industry partnerships to carry off a pandemic-era indie film showcase to run to Feb. 3.

Shortened to seven days, compared to the usual 10 days, the Sundance Institute's mostly virtual festival will have film lovers scrolling to view around 73 feature-length movies and additional short films 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.

Gina Duncan, who recently joined Sundance in the newly-created role of producing director, pointed to the use of arthouse cinemas countrywide connected by satellite screens as another avenue to bigger overall audience this year. "In the same way that we are creating this safe online space, we are also connecting with communities across the country and tapping into a really rich ecosystem of nonprofit arthouses who do this work throughout the year," she explained.

Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, while conceding the online hub and industry partnerships emerged from the darkness and human loss of a pandemic, did point to a forecast record overall audience for the Sundance festival.

"That this will be, we think, the largest audience we've ever had is an unexpected advantage. It wasn't clear that people would turn out for a digital Sundance, and the satellite screens," she told the virtual Q&A that comes ahead of opening night on Thursday.