Sundance Film Festival goes virtual: Online premieres and digital after-parties

The US film festival returns to its roots with a shorter timeframe, fewer submissions and less celebrities

The marquee of the Egyptian Theatre is shown Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Park City, Utah. The largely virtual Sundance Film Festival opened Thursday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
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Red carpets for the stars might not be rolled out in Park City, Utah, this year, but the 2021 Sundance Film Festival is opening its doors to audiences globally with online premieres and virtual panels.

Like many other festivals, the main US showcase for independent film, founded by actor and director Robert Redford, has cancelled its in-person edition at the ski resort town owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, presenting a digital version instead.

Smaller in size and length, it began on Thursday and runs until next Wednesday. Films presented at the festival will include 72 features and 50 shorts.

People can buy tickets to watch premieres and take part in question-and-answer sessions online. Sundance is also putting on drive-in and other outdoor screenings in some US cities.

"The festival is coming from a place of needing to completely reimagine and take the pieces we know are part of our essence, and build them into something different," festival director Tabitha Jackson told an online news conference.

She said submissions were only slightly down from previous years, mainly from US production.

Signs of the times

This image released by the Sundance Institute shows a scene from "In The Same Breath," an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. (Sundance Institute via AP)

"We also got films that were made in Covid, reflected in the subject matter or in the form. ... It's been interesting for us to be able to be one of the first showcases for creativity that came through a pandemic or is being made in the midst of it."

Film screenings include Coda, about a music-loving girl afraid to leave her deaf parents, and Together Together, starring The Hangover actor Ed Helms as a single man who hires a surrogate mother.

Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga star in the racial drama Passing set in 1929 New York, while How It Ends, featuring Olivia Wilde, takes place on the last day on Earth. Documentary The Sparks Brothers, about the pop and rock music duo, is also on the list.

Director Pete Nicks poses for a portrait to promote the film "Homeroom" as part of the Sundance Film festival on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Peter DaSilva)

"There's very few films from studios. ... There's not as many celebrities," film industry and review website IndieWire Editor-in-Chief Dana Harris-Bridson told Reuters.

"It feels almost like a throwback to Sundance of the early '90s when ... Sundance was still fairly new and still proving itself and hadn't been understood as a launching pad for larger titles. In a way ... it's going back to its roots." Panels at the festival will include one about women in film featuring Halle Berry and Robin Wright.

Rethinking film festivals

A man walks past the Egyptian Theatre Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, in Park City, Utah. The largely virtual Sundance Film Festival opened Thursday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Film festivals have had to postpone or rethink their editions, with September's Toronto International Film Festival also streamed digitally. The Cannes Film Festival in 2020 was replaced with a pared-back edition of short films; the 2021 event has been delayed to July.

But Harris-Bridson said there are positive aspects to going virtual.

"It gives a much larger opportunity to the public to see the films," she said.