How to Work a Major Film Festival: A Report from Sundance

By Jane Applegate

Film festivals—especially the recent Sundance Film Festival—offer tremendous opportunities for networking, partying and watching an unbelievable collection of new films on every topic from kids entering a science fair to Syrian refugees to Russian propaganda allegedly influencing the U.S. presidential election.

Very few industry professionals go to a festival to watch films. They attend a festival to catch up with friends, make new industry contacts and ink deals at public and private events along Main Street in bars near the venues.

Last month, about 60,000 people gathered in Salt Lake City, Provo and Park City, Utah for 10 days. The festival wrapped up with a post-awards dance party DJ’ed by RuPaul.

There were a handful of snowstorms boosting the spirits of the skiers and pushing more people to ride free shuttle buses from venue to venue. On the crowded bus, you could easily chat with people from all over the world.

Although there were fewer films like Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea this year, there were still some fascinating and provocative new films about everything from a forgotten country music singer named Blaze Foley (Blaze) and a fantastic Netlfix documentary about high-profile civil rights attorney, Gloria Allred (Seeing Allred). A personal highlight for me was catching a glimpse of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a screening of the documentary about her, RBG.

 

2018 Sundance Film Festival - Cinema Cafe With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg And Nina Totenberg

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during the Cinema Cafe with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Nina Totenberg during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at Filmmaker Lodge on January 21, 2018 in Utah. (Robin Marchant—Getty Images)

“It definitely has seemed slower and quieter relative to the last couple of years,” said Covert Media CEO Paul Hanson, told Variety. His company produced the Sundance period drama Ophelia.

This year, the biggest sale was for Assassination Nation, which premiered in the festival’s Midnight section. That $10 million-plus sale to AGBO and Neon was apparently the only big sale. Sony Pictures Classics paid $5 million for a Kelly Macdonald drama Puzzle, and Bleecker Street and 30West paid $4 million-plus for the U.S. rights the Keira Knightley biopic Colette. Lionsgate reportedly paid $3 million for the opening night drama Blindspotting.

No matter how much experience you have as a producer, attending a major festival can be exhausting, overwhelming and frightening if you aren’t well rested and well-prepared.

I went to the festival hoping to meet a West Coast agent or talent manager to help me further the acting career of my new client, Jacinth Headlam. Sending that intention into the universe, I was standing in line waiting to get into a party when I met Judi Bell, an experienced talent manager based in Park City and L.A. We’re now putting together a plan to work together. So, there is magic in the mountain air.

Here are some tips from the front line:

  1. Invest in a festival pass. You have a year to save enough money to purchase some sort of high-level pass. Going to a major festival without tickets works for tourists, but not for professionals who want to attend panels, parties and special events.
  2. Register in advance. Most festivals, including Sundance, require you to register and set up an online account before the ticket sales begin and then, assign a specific time slot to purchase tickets. Don’t miss your assigned time to buy tickets.
  3. Know where you are staying. Book a comfortable place to stay on the extensive shuttle circuit. You won’t be spending much time in your hotel or rented room, but you will definitely want a place to shower and a quiet place sleep.
  4. Dress realistically. Buy and break in comfortable shoes and wear appropriate clothing. I saw several people sloshing around the snow in sneakers or high heels. Bad idea. Dress for the climate wherever you are.
  5. Network, network, network. Set up as many meetings as you can in advance. Take a few important meetings during the first few days before the chaos begins. Once you are in festival mode, leave hours open for serendipitous and random meetings along the way. Most chance encounters take place in line waiting for screenings, on the bus, in restaurants and bars and cafes along Main Street.
  6. Listen to your body. Take breaks to eat and drink lots of water, especially in Park City, where the 7,000-foot altitude means many suffer from altitude sickness. I felt queasy and dizzy the first day, but kept hydrated.

My chance encounters included a nice chat with an Austrian engineer whose wife gave him a pass and hotel reservations as a birthday gift. On the flight home, I met a Canadian filmmaker who was looking a producer for a short sci-fi film he plans to shoot in the New Mexican desert. I’m reading his script. Who knows?

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