Is Sundance Worth It for Film Crew Members? Veteran Festival Goers Offer their Advice
Over the next ten days, the Sundance Film Festival will screen 113 feature films, and tens of thousands of people descend on the small town of Park City, Utah. Included in those crowds are the crewmembers from all over the world that made those 113 movies possible.
While directors with projects premiering at Sundance are flown out to Utah by distributors or financiers, many crewmembers who worked tirelessly and often for very little money wind up paying their own way to the festival in order to support their own films. It’s an expensive trip, and they may wind up without accreditation, or invites to parties, or tickets to screenings other than their own (assuming, that is, that they even score a ticket to their own film!) For these crew members, is the trip to Park City worth it? Filmmaker talked to a number of crew members who have attended the Sundance Film Festival with projects, both features and shorts, to get a better sense of their experiences.
For many crew, a decision to go to Sundance may come down to one simple element: housing. Housing in Park City is not cheap or easy to find because condos book up fast. But being part of a film that has that organized already helps a lot. “Make sure you openly communicate with the film’s producers and director about what arrangements they have for the film’s crew,” says production designer Gabriella Moses, who has attended Sundance with the short Actresses and feature How to Tell You’re a Douchebag. “I’ve found films that get shared housing for their crew have the most fun. [The film crew] can host a party for their film, and it also guarantees you always have buddies to go to screenings with. My first year I attended a karaoke slumber party of sorts with the crew of Unexpected and I thought, man, this is the dream wrap party, being at a festival with everyone you slaved away with to celebrate you work.”
Being reunited with the team behind a film seems to be a huge impetus for many crewmembers traveling to Sundance. Says Alexis Vail, the key production assistant on the 2016 Sundance Special Jury Prize winning As You Are, “A lot of us traveled out to support our film, cast and crew. We crammed ourselves into a seemingly large house, shared beds, slept on couches and floors; no flat surface was off limits. We made family dinners and recounted set stories by a fire just like we did during production. It was the best reason to come back together, to celebrate the accomplishment of making a challenging film and to get reinvigorated for future projects.” Similarly, production designer Deneice O’Connor (Hellion, Sundance 2014) agrees that her “favorite part was reuniting with the crew and getting a chance to see our work on the big screen.”
Because editor Julia Bloch (Green Room, Sundance 2016; Blue Ruin, Sundance 2014) is not usually involved in her films’ day-to-day production, she welcomes the connection to community at Sundance. “The edit is a relatively isolated part of the filmmaking process,” she says, “as opposed to all the crew and cast bonding that goes on on-set, so I really make an effort to go to festivals when I can; I like feeling that I’m part of the team.”
“I’ve had a number of feature films in festivals around the world, but Sundance has a definite buzz and intensity that the other fests do not,” says cinematographer Ethan Palmer, who attended Sundance last year with Goat. “Sundance is the Harvard of festivals (for better or worse) and there is a distinct feeling among attendees that you are at the center of the industry for those 10 days,” says “It’s rewarding to feel that the film you have worked on for so long is getting deserved attention.”
Veteran Sundance attendee cinematographer Chris Teague (Obvious Child, Appropriate Behavior, and this year’s Landline) says, “I think one of the best parts [of Sundance] is the atmosphere of excitement and passion for movies. For me it has been a time and place to get excited about making movies again. It’s fun to be some of the first people to see a new film, and seeing a film you worked on screen in front of a packed audience full of passionate filmgoers is a one of a kind feeling.”
For most crew members, their own premiere is the prime event. Rebecca Radjadnya was the 1st assistant camera on Jim Strouses’ People Places Things, which premiered at Sundance in 2015 and recounts that her “favorite part of the festival was going to see the People Places Things premiere showing. There was an energy buzzing throughout the room. That group of strangers was different than the theater of strangers I would watch the movie with back in New York City — they were hungry for good independent cinema and were hoping that it would be delivered to them. The audience was very vocal, laughing in all of the right places, and I could hear groups’ conversations on how they liked the movie as they bustled out. I felt a sense of immediate pride that I never experienced before that.”
After more than 30 years, Sundance remains a home for cinephiles and an important event that respects the craft of filmmaking, and for crew members, being in this environment can be fundamental. For some of the men and women who work to make these Sundance films the final product or process can be lost in the low pay, tough conditions and long hours. Sundance can be a reminder for why people in the industry put themselves through this. Moses notes, “I found myself emotional at every premiere, not only because of the work on the screen, but also seeing the people who brought those films to life speak about their experiences making their films and what it meant to them to screen their film at Sundance. [I’m] not going to lie, I teared up a few times — simply because Sundance reminded me why I work all those crazy hours to bring these stories to the screen. I always leave the festivals eager as ever to do it again.”
For many, Park City literalizes the idea of community. “I love running into friends and colleagues that I usually never see,” says production designer Sara K. White (Obvious Child, Tallulah and this year’s Midnight Section film Bushwick). “Literally on the street! It’s wonderful to be surrounded by such a great group of filmmaking friends.” Bloch agrees, “Sundance in particular has a neighborhood feeling to it because, for the most part, people are staying within walking distance from each other and the festival events and venues are all right there. You just naturally seem to run into people without having to consciously ‘network’ all the time. I’ll even end up having great conversations with people who all live in New York, and it can be hard to get together in the city but here we are in this totally different setting.”
Joshua Gleason, a grip on two features that played Sundance (Spa Night and I Used to be Darker) observes that, “Sundance is surprisingly intimate. I’m even surprised that I just said that. It feels huge most times, but even so, I frequently run into friends on Main Street or in line for movies. I have also made oddly casual connections with people I wouldn’t have access to in the ‘real world.’ And when you get there, you tend to forget how many people you actually know.”
That said, many crew members feel that sometimes the focus of the festival is misplaced. Palmer comments, “I was disappointed to find that Sundance is really for the industry, not for the filmmakers. I suppose I was a little naive thinking that it would be a filmmaker-centered meet up where we’d talk about craft and experience. Sundance does brand itself as the heart of the indie world — the alt-Hollywood — so I had some picture of a communal gathering.” Accepting that this community has to be done on one’s own may help quell disappointment for future festivalgoers.
Being among friends and peers may also help the inevitable feeling of exclusion that comes with an A-List, week-long event like Sundance. “Feeling like an outsider is one of the worst parts of the festival,” says Teague. “The culture of guest lists and inclusion/exclusion can be very unpleasant. Often when I go I feel an anxiety about not ‘doing’ enough at the festival, even if I’m running around all day long between events, parties, and movies.”
Gleason elaborates on this isolation but suggests a strategy around it. “If your social-professional network isn’t that well-established, you may find it difficult to do much more than see movies and eat overpriced lunches,” he says. “It’s a Catch-22 in a way. You should make sure to have at least one or two people there that you trust to share contacts and make casual introductions. Always return the favor. Not only is this strategy key to help network while there, but most of the events have strict guest lists and without a connection, you may find yourself left out in the cold.”
Radjadnya also notes, “The amount of shops and areas based around branding and marketing was insane to me. I think there was a Chase Sapphire lounge, I drank Stella cider all of one night at the Stella bar, went to a Canon party where they pushed their gear — the list goes on and on. Of course, it’s understandable that the festival needs to be funded, but it started to seem more like a spectacle and a party than a serious film festival.”
There are more, unexpected complaints about the festival, such as the ticketing process being difficult to navigate (“Waiting in line up to two hours to see a film and then being turned away is discouraging,” says Palmer), freezing temperatures, the imperfect and slow transportation system, and the festival’s high cost (“As an independent non-producer/director/writer/star filmmaker, there aren’t a lot of perks — everything’s on your dime, which is hard,” notes White). Yet, despite all that, most participants say they would return.
“I would definitely go back [to Sundance], but only if I had a film there,” says Bloch. O’Connor echoes, “I would most likely only go if I had a project, unless I become a millionaire… or a millionaire wanted to take me.”
Vail says, “I would go back to Sundance with or without a project as the value of the festival is based within the community.” “I would and will [go back to Sundance],” says White. “I hope every time one of my own films is there, but I would love to get a chance to go just for fun — to relax a bit.” Teague agrees, “I love the idea of going there without a movie and just binge-watching movies all week, but I’ve never quite been able to do that.”
The goal may be to eventually get to the festival and enjoy it solely for exactly what it is — a chance to watch a lot of films.
TOP TIPS FROM SUNDANCE CREW VETS
Julia Bloch, editor of Green Room (2016)
“Bring business cards and don’t be shy about handing them out. See if you can get comp tickets to any screenings of your movie — people love to be given free tickets! You can trade them for tickets to other people’s films you want to see, or give them to someone who you want to see the film you worked on.”
Joshua Gleason, key grip on Spa Night (2016)
“One of my biggest tips would be to RSVP +1 for everything you’re invited to. Aside from a Filmmaker credential and a warm jacket, a +1 is the most valuable thing you can have in Park City during the festival. Also, plan as much as you can ahead of time, but when you get there, be prepared to throw it all out and go with the breeze. (Bonus tip: Visit Slamdance to break the monotony.)”
Jay Hamme, unit production assistant on Listen Up Philip (2014)
“Heads up that most festival shuttles stop running at midnight but there are tons of cabs. If your driver offers you a card, keep it. It’s often the best way to get easy rides — make friends with your drivers because at night everyone wants a ride home.”
Gabriella Moses, production designer of How to Tell You’re a Douchebag (2016)
“Also make sure to see the hidden gems of the festivals with the newcomers; such as, films in the NEXT section. These films will be less guaranteed to get picked up right away and get a wide release. It’s great to be able to support these films before anyone hears about them.”
Deneice O’Connor, production designer of Hellion
“Plan ahead! Look at screening calendars and do research on films that might interest you. Since sponsored film parties aren’t that easy to get into, throw little parties where you are staying. It’s a better place to meet others in a relaxed environment. Most of the big parties are for producers/above-the-line types. If you are a crewmember, become comfortable with sticking with other crewmembers and making your own fun. Pick a place to stay that has a kitchen — you can buy a bunch of food at the grocery store and take turns cooking meals! It’s a great way to save money to spend on movie tickets!
And take a day to drive out of Park City. The area is surrounded by so much beauty. I highly suggest a visit to Homestead Crater! It’s a hot spring pool under a really cool crater and its owned by the one and only Dolly Parton! Its about an hour outside of town.”
Ethan Palmer, cinematographer of Goat (2016)
“Keep expectations in check – whether it’s distribution for your film or following up with contacts made at the festival, things take time to develop. Also keep the Sundance reality distortion field in mind: buzz and sale prices do not necessarily mean good movies ;)”
Rebecca Radjadnya, 1st assistant camera on People Places Things (2015)
“Look up the lineup of films and figure out which ones you really want to see. You won’t be able to see all of them, and they will often have conflicting schedules, so prioritize your top films beforehand. If you are into the whole party scene, ask around to Sundance alumni for parties that have open RSVPs, although, given that I was a newbie, it wasn’t too difficult to get in as a +1 with people. Don’t be afraid to split up with your friends if you disagree on what to do next — there are so many likeminded people hanging around the screenings and events, it won’t be difficult to strike up conversation.”
Chris Teague, cinematographer of Obvious Child (2014), Landline (2017)
“If you want to actually see movies, plan to spend some time there after the first weekend. It’s extremely difficult to see movies on the first weekend. Don’t walk in with too many expectations. Don’t worry if you can’t get on party lists. You’re probably not missing much. Go skiing or snowboarding – no one is on the mountain during the festival.”
Alexis Vail, key production assistant on As You Are (2016)
“Bring business cards, your badge and a buddy. Especially as a first-time goer, I found it to be a bit daunting and overwhelming to figure out how to spend your time, where to go, what to see, and how to get there. Be open to meeting as many people as possible, seeing as much as you can and staying connected to those you meet after the festival is over. Also, pack layers, lots of warm layers, snow boots and a swimsuit. If you do it right, you’ll end up with some old friends and some new friends in a hot tub sharing a few drinks under snowfall.”
Jami Villers, wardrobe designer of Dark Night (2016)
“[Bring] vitamins and comfortable shoes. Drink water. Find a way to borrow or obtain a filmmaker pass to get your movie tickets. The waitlist works, but advance tickets are gold. Say yes to everything!”
Sara K. White, production designer of Obvious Child (2014), Bushwick (2017)
“If you’re going with a film, be shameless about asking your producers and friends to help you get credentials and tickets. It makes the whole experience more vibrant to be in the room with other filmmakers talking about projects.”