Tips for Attending the Sundance Film Festival

This year, I had the opportunity to attend the Sundance Film Festival and it was easily one of the most fun trips I've had, even topping my trip to Deer Valley last summer. Even though I didn't watch a single movie, there is a lot to see and do in Park City to keep you busy for days. As this was my first year attending and I was technically there to work, I wasn't able to fully experience Sundance as an attendee would, but I learned a lot by talking to other festival-goers. If you're planning to attend Sundance, here are some tips on how to have the best experience possible. 

What is the Sundance Film Festival?

This annual film festival is a program of the Sundance Institute, a non-profit organization founded by actor Robert Redford with the aim of supporting the growth of independent artists. The film festival showcases new work from American and international independent filmmakers, and it is currently the largest independent film festival in the United States. It takes place every year, usually lasting for 10 days in mid to late January.

Originally, Sundance began in Salt Lake City in August 1978 with the intent of attracting filmmakers to Utah. In 1981, the festival moved to Park City, Utah. The timeframe also changed from September to January. The idea was that a film festival held in the middle of a ski resort during peak winter season would be more attractive to Hollywood.

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Sundance Today

Today, the main idea of Sundance is to premiere and promote new movies. This means lots of screenings held at movie theaters all around Park City, and lots of publicity moments and parties to go along with those film releases. Some events are invite-only, and others are open to the public. In most cases, especially the public events, this still means lots of waiting in line as venues often don't have the biggest capacities.

During the festival, all of Historic Main Street in Park City is transformed into venues that support Sundance-affiliated events. This means that many restaurants and otherwise public venues are either very full or closed altogether for private events, so plan accordingly.

The most interesting thing about Sundance is that even though there are technically hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, it never feels exceedingly crowded. That's probably because it's too cold outside for big crowds to congregate, and there are also lots of events happening along a big stretch within Park City.

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Tips for Attending Sundance

1. Dress warmly.

For some, this tip is a no-brainer. But I saw plenty of people wandering around Park City who were severely underdressed. Winter in Park City can see temperatures drop to single-digits, especially at night. This means dressing not just for cold weather, but for snowy weather. Layers are definitely your friend, and you may even want to invest in a pair of long underwear to help you stay warm while waiting in lines outside.

One of the best brands for winter clothing is Smartwool. Their fabric is lightweight, warm, and moisture resistant. I've come to love their socks in particular as they keep your feet warm and dry.

  • Socks
  • Insulated boots - love this pair by Kodiak
  • Warm winter jacket
  • Warm winter pants
  • Long underwear
  • Hat or beanie
  • Scarf
  • Gloves
  • Hand warmers
  • Waterproof pants - for snow activities
  • Bathing suit - for hot tub

2. Plan ahead for movie tickets and events.

Similar to SXSW in Austin, Sundance holds lots of official and unofficial events, many of which require online RSVPs. The best thing to do is a Google search for "Sundance events and parties" the week before. Make note of what sounds interesting and RSVP online if needed. The same is true for movie tickets.

While there is an on-site box office where you can buy movie tickets, they're often sold out. With that said, there are two ways to possibly score tickets on-site. The first option is to arrive early (as in 8am) at the box office and see if there are any unsold tickets for the day's showings. Finally, you can also ask around and often scalp tickets at face value. People's plans change all the time and festival-goers always have spare tickets to sell.

The most stress-free way to get movie tickets is to buy them in advance. Register for a free account on the Sundance website and purchase tickets online. You can buy advance tickets as early as fall, so get on it early. 

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3. Don't be a "stalker-azzi."

If you're at Sundance during opening weekend, it's almost a guarantee that you'll see celebrities walking around. In between photographing events and just walking down the street, I had surreal encounters with the likes of Nicholas Cage, Robert Pattinson, Usher, Peter Dinklage, Kenneth Cole, and Forest Whitaker, to name a few. While it's completely normal to get starstruck, that's no excuse for acting like a "stalker-azzi." If you see a celeb and want to get a photo of him or her, be respectful. Ask permission and back off if the answer is no. If the answer is yes, take your photo quickly and move on.

4. Pick accommodations that are close by.

As a resort town, Park City offers a decent amount of accommodations at varying prices. I was lucky to get a shared room at Park Station Condo Hotel, located just a few minutes' walk away from Main Street. This is a very convenient place to stay if you can get a room here. If hotels are booked or too expensive, consider Airbnb. There are many vacation rental houses that are still within walking distance of Main Street.

5. Don't rent a car.

If you can at all help it, avoid renting a car and attempting to drive around Park City during the festival. Parking is very expensive, and the streets are very small and often packed. You're better off walking or using Park City's free transit options. If you happen to catch an Uber, Lyft or taxi, get out of the car before they drive down Main Street as this is often where the congestion is the worst. Another word on transportation: Park City is a 42 minute drive away from the Salt Lake City International Airport, so the best way to go between the two is a shuttle or shared Uber. In my case, it cost about $56.00 for a one-way trip via Uber.

The delightful smashed avocado toast at Harvest.

The delightful smashed avocado toast at Harvest.

6. Eat out and eat in.

One of the best pro tips for enjoying and feeding yourself during Sundance is to take advantage of daytime lounges offering free coffee and snacks. This might take some trial and error, but it's a great way to find a place to warm up while in between events or films.

Many restaurants close down for private parties during opening weekend, so plan accordingly. Also, the food can be rather pricey so you probably don't want to eat out all the time. The nearest grocery store is Fresh Market, located about a mile away from Main Street. Walk or Uber down and stock up on food for the week.

Grocery store food ideas

  • bagels
  • lunchmeat and cheese
  • peanut butter
  • carrots and hummus
  • pasta
  • microwave dinners
  • coffee/tea
  • nuts

Where to Eat in Park City

  • The Bridge (great views and food)
  • Collie's Sports Bar
  • High West Distillery
  • Harvest
  • Atticus Coffee

7. Get out and play.

Park City is a winter-lovers' paradise. When you're not seeing a movie or attending an event, indulge in some of the nearby snow activities. It's a quick (Uber) drive away to snowmobiling, tubing, skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and more. Just be sure to bring appropriate clothing (ie. snow pants) and make reservations in advance to hold your spot.

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