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Crashing Sundance: The latecomer's guide to the indie film fest next door

Every January, Park City and Salt Lake City host the Sundance Film Festival. Started as the US/Utah Film Festival in 1978, it’s since grown into a must-go for anyone who is anyone (and anyone who wants to be anyone) in the indie film biz. During the festival, sure, Utah overflows with industry folks, celebrities, marketing wonks and a colorful cast of hangers-on, but — and a lot of people are surprised to learn this — the festival is emphatically not an insiders-only event. Sundance offers hundreds of screenings, panels and other events that are all open to the public. And there are lots of open seats.

As a semi-professional film dork, I’ve spent the last decade either working the festival as a journalist or going on cinematic blind dates as a civilian, taking a chance on waitlists and last-minute ticket sales. I’ve seen cast-attended screenings of Sundance darlings such as Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004), Win Win (Paul Giamatti, 2011), and Captain Fantastic (Viggo Mortensen, 2016). I’ve caught harrowing documentaries like 2013’s The Crash Reel, the gut-wrenching story of former Olympic snowboarder Kevin Pearce’s tragic career-ending injury. And, of course, I’ve seen some dogs. Like part two of a bloviating, band-produced, three-part Eagles documentary in 2014 (Really, guys? Three parts?) and some very strange shorts and mumblecore films that are inevitably created in humid Austin, Texas, and seem to have an overabundance of armadillos.

But, whether I end up catching a critical darling or sitting through a dog, my favorite part of Sundance is walking into the festival box office, browsing the wall of day-of tickets for sale and just following my gut.

And you can do it, too. The famous independent film festival is just eight days and 400 or so miles away. Here’s my quick and dirty cinephile’s guide to crashing Sundance.

Tickets, tickets please
This year’s festival runs Jan. 19-29, and individual tickets go on sale Jan. 17, continue through the festival and range in price from $20-$25. But here’s the thing: Even though it seems late in the game, the festival only generally sells out 30 percent of its 650-plus screenings every year, so you can easily get tickets on the fly. And, if you keep a flexible schedule and open mind, getting these tickets is half the fun of Sundance. Spend some time with the festival’s program now and build yourself a list in order of interest (cross-referenced with times) of films that catch your eye. It’s also a good idea to set up a login on the festival site in advance. On Jan. 17, log on and jump into the fray.  

Is your dream screening sold out? Don’t give up yet. Every morning of the festival, unsold or unclaimed tickets are put up for sale on the festival website and at the festival box offices in Salt Lake and Park City.  

Get in line
If advance or day-of sales fail you, another option is the waitlist, a Sundance tradition. Each day, the box offices at each venue offer up spots on a waitlist for sold-out screenings, which you can join virtually on your smartphone via the Sundance app. Register your account, choose a film, receive a waitlist number, and arrive at the theater at least 30 minutes before the screening for a chance to get a ticket. Then. Um. Wait. Although it sounds a little uncertain, the Sundance venue people are pros — they’re usually able seat the entire waitlist. 

(The expensive nuclear option: The golden ticket. Although early-bird ticket packages are sold out at this stage, Sundance offers a premium all-access ticket called the Express Pass for the second half of the festival for a mere $3,000.)

The secret of Salt Lake
There are essentially two Sundance Film Festivals. One is the official festival, which is all about film, filmmakers the independent film industry. The other, unofficial festival is a celebrity circus and a corporate branding exercise that surrounds the more serious mission of the festival. (For the record, Sundance Founder Robert Redford is not a fan of the circus.) And while it can be fun strolling Park City’s Main Street and sighting a famous face or two, if you want to see films, focus your efforts on the Salt Lake City venues. They’re low on Hollywood hype and easier to get in and out of. Also, most of the celebrity stuff only happens on the festival’s opening weekend. 

Sneak in a ski day or two
Bonus: The two weeks of the festival are primo ski time in Utah, which has been slammed with snow already this year. Not only is it a good time to visit snow-wise, the ski crowds in Park City (Park City Resort and Deer Valley) thin out during the festival for two reasons: Park City locals tend to bug out, and the L.A. types (who just bought that North Face puffy two days ago) are there to work, not to play. You can pretty much walk right onto the lift. See you on the slopes — and at the theater.

Jeremy Pugh is a writer living in Salt Lake City who, in one way or another, has been writing about culture, history, and the outdoors in Utah for more than a decade. 

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