Our second guest blogger is here! Online film critic, Katey Stoetzel, is stopping by to recount her Sundance experience for all of her fellow film lovers. This is her first travel piece, so let’s give her some love!
“That’s Mormon country, you know.”
For weeks leading up to my departure to Utah, this was the response. From family members, friends, and coworkers alike, I couldn’t tell if they were warning me or informing me, almost like I hadn’t seen that map of the United States that breaks every state down to one very stereotypical aspect of it.
Of course, Mormonism was not the reason for my trip to Utah, because, like other places, there’s many reasons to travel somewhere, and everyone seemed to forget the most important reason of all (to me, at least) to travel to Park City, Utah. Park City may be home to a vast amount of ski resorts and memorabilia from the 2002 Winter Olympics, but for 10 days in January, Hollywood meets the rest of the world in a (very slushy) winter wonderland for the Sundance Film Festival. It was time to cram as many films into two weeks as I possibly could.
It wasn’t until October of last year I even thought of going. The website I write for, The Young Folks, had four available press badges for the festival, and since I was looking for more writing opportunities, I grabbed at the chance. I filled out a press application, sent in some of my writing examples, as well as an uncomfortably up close photo of me, and waited a month until I heard back. By this point it was mid November, with the festival two months out, and I had no idea what to do about lodging or transportation. As a solo traveler, I needed every cheap option I could find. Park City is mostly ski resorts. Any price that follows the word “resort” will be way above the budget range of a single traveler.
If you’re a solo traveler like I was, I would look 20 miles down the mountain, to Salt Lake City. Even then, Airbnb is your best bet. I was able to find a private room for $19/night, and another for $29/night when I later decided to stay a few extra days.
However, transportation gets a bit tricky from Salt Lake. If you’re staying for 3 or 4 nights, I would say go for trying to stay in Park City. There’s a really nice hostel there, simply called Park City Hostel, where, if you play your cards right, it would be worth the slightly extra money. In fact, I briefly considered this option, but even a single bed in a dorm of six people was going to cost me roughly $800 for 8 nights. By staying in Park City, you can take advantage of the free bus system. However, if you’re planning on staying anywhere between 5 days to two weeks, Airbnb it up. Two buses, the 901 and the 902, go from Salt Lake City to Park City, only costing $4.50 one way (bring exact change). During Sundance, some of the best films happen late at night. The last bus from Park City is at 7:30 though, so that’s when your Uber bill goes up. Most of the time, I was able to get an Uber ride for 25-30 dollars.
The press pass I was on was a working pass, which meant I could get into films for free, but only after standing in the waitlist line. Casual festival goers can also take advantage of the waitlist line. How it works:
- It’s an app, like most things nowadays
- Waitlist opens two hours before show time, so you must have quick fingers and a phone that isn’t a Samsung
- You can link your account with a friend, so you both get consecutive numbers
- Even with a number as high as 60, you’ll most likely get in. The only time I didn’t was when I was number 132, and even then, I still only ended up 20 people back. (Fun fact: In that same waitlist line, about ten people behind me was Osric Chau, Kevin from “Supernatural.” I didn’t feel super bad about not getting in after that.)
I wanted to balk at the waitlist lines, but they actually turned out to be kind of fun. Standing in line with people who are just as eager about seeing a film is one the coolest things about the experience. If you find yourself in such a position, talk to people. There’s also a sort of thrill of not knowing whether you’ll get in, and the moment you make it through the line, the volunteers clapping for you as you make your way to the theater, feels like you accomplished something. All you did was stand in line, but it’s more about the celebration of film than anything else. A chance to see something before the rest of the world. Who wouldn’t love that?
At Sundance, you’ll find all sorts of people. When there’re films to talk about, it’s easy to fall in camaraderie with strangers. As major film buffs, my Airbnb buddy, Jamie, and I, were aware of Sundance’s surge in premiering decent horror films as of late. Films like It Follows, The Witch, The Babadook, and A Ghost Story all came out of Sundance, and this year, we wanted to be ahead of the horror film curve.
Sundance divides up its slate of movies into categories — U.S. Dramatic Competition, U.S. Documentary Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Documentary Competition, Premieres, Documentary Premieres, Spotlight, NEXT, Indie Episodic (a new program that featured the first episodes of an upcoming TV show), Shorts Program, and finally, Midnight.
Most of the films listed under the Midnight category sounded like dark comedies, of which there’s nothing wrong. But we wanted true horror. Shaking in our seats horror. Something atmospheric. Something that was going to be the talk of the festival. We found Hereditary.
It’s films like Hereditary (releases wide June 8!) that remind me of how much I love film. Not just film itself, but the culture surrounding them.
There’s much more to do in Salt Lake City and Park City during the festival and outside the festival. If you find yourself with some spare time before a film starts, Jamie and I spent two hours in the Clark Planetarium in downtown Salt Lake. Panel discussions, music cafes, shopping, eating, celebrity sightseeing, parties. The central part of the festival is Main Street. Notable places to duck into for a quick bite or some free wifi:
- Java Cow. Limited space, but they do have crepes. They also aren’t as crowded as Atticus.
- Atticus Coffee and Teahouse, so named for the famous literary character Atticus Finch. The place was always too crowded whenever I stepped in, so I didn’t hang around for long.
- Filmmaker’s Lodge. You do have to have a ticket to get in. Any kind of press badge will do, but general festival goers can look into buying tickets from the box office. Here, you can hang out on couches and chairs, drink coffee, and be first in line for the Cinema Cafe discussions.
- I don’t remember the name of the place, but at the back of a gift shop I found a gelato bar.
If you’re lucky enough to make it into receptions, it’s a good chance to mingle with industry professionals. I went to a press breakfast hosted by Kickstarter one morning, met one of their PR people, and then later ran into them at a press and filmmakers reception where he introduced me to a producer and a director of a film that was premiering at the festival. I met another director who was premiering his first short animated series, and another woman who used to be an animator on “The Simpsons.” For an hour before a panel discussion with Nick Offerman and Jason Manzoukas, I talked to a guy who just started his own production company in his mid-thirties.
Not only were these industry people inspiring, but the people in my own field were amazing too. Film critics I love to read were watching the same movies as me. When I told other critics what site I wrote for, they knew what I was talking about. It’s hard, sometimes, writing for a digital platform. There are numbers that tell how many page views you’ve received, but it didn’t occur to me how much reach our site got until I was at Sundance and people were telling me they read our site all the time.
I knew Sundance was going to be an experience, but I didn’t realize how much I was going to learn from the people who were in the same boat as me. People who love film so much they brave the snow and the cold just to escape into stories.
Katey Stoetzel hails from Kansas City, MO. You can find her on various places on the internet, as a film critic and the host of two podcast, Get Slayed and Split Screened. Follow her on Twitter @kateypretzel.