With the rise of auteur cinema and a global cult fascination with all things involving obscure destinations and eccentric art, film festivals have experienced something of a renaissance in recent years. While festivals are still a place for Hollywood elites and hit-starved producers to catch a look at the year’s best films, many of the world’s top film festivals are catering to general audiences as well, providing top-tier cinematic experiences and the unrivaled opportunity to brush shoulders with Hollywood’s brightest.
Among the world’s most prominent festivals, the Sundance Film Festival ranks as one of the largest, attracting well over 120,000 people on an annual basis and driving a whopping $200 million in revenue. Held in Park City, Utah, this once fledgling American-born film festival is now an internationally coveted event, and is responsible for the rise of recent films like The Report, Three Identical Strangers, and the Oscar-winning drama Manchester By the Sea.
Given the hype surrounding the event each year, attending the Sundance Film Festival for the first time can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. With the right amount of planning and a lifetime supply of movie-theater popcorn, your Sundance Festival experience can be free of first-time flops and, instead, full of the celebrity selfies you’ve been waiting your whole life to nab.
Here are a few key things to keep in mind as you plan to attend the Sundance Festival for the first time:
Book your Sundance experience early
When we say book ahead of time, we mean way ahead. The Sundance Film Festival, started in 1978 as part of an initiative to bring more attention to American filmmaking and the state of Utah, has grown significantly in the last 30 years. With 120,000 in attendance annually and the millions of dollars that are dedicated to finance the operation, it is one of the West's largest travel events of the year.
The massive attendance numbers alone make getting reservations, plane tickets and ground transportation for the late January festival a monumental task. If you’re planning on attending, it’s best to make reservations at least 3-6 months in advance. This is especially important when you consider that Park City doubles as a world class ski area during the winter months, so many of the best accommodations and travel arrangements are already booked well in advance of the winter season.
Arrive ahead of time
Along with booking travel ahead of time, it’s highly recommended as a first-timer to give yourself a day or two buffer before the festival actually starts. You can beat the bulk of the crowds by heading down mid-week prior to the first weekend of Sundance, and you can also give yourself some much needed time to orient yourself to the festival grounds.
You can study the festival map, as well as get a good sense for the film locations, food stations, and restrooms located throughout the event. For first-timers, having a day or two to get used to the Park City area can save unneeded headaches once the event really gets going, and it can also help you prioritize the queues and locations you’d prefer to visit throughout the weekend.
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Cook a few meals to save a few bucks
Save time (and money) by putting your chef's hat on. One of the lesser-reported suggestions for first-timers at Sundance centers around meal prep. While the food is readily available in and around the festival (it is basically one giant movie theater, after all), you can save yourself valuable time and money by prepping a few of your meals in advance.
On the day you arrive in Park City, swing by the grocery store and snag a few essentials: protein bars, some fruit, coffee, and a selection of high-quality hangover food. Especially if you’re planning to attend the after-parties, stocking your snacks ahead of time can make a surprisingly big difference in your overall festival experience.
Book your accommodations off the beaten path
Stay out of the fray by staying off Main Street. The central road in Park City, Main Street is where you'll find most of the festival activity, before and after hours. While it may feel like you’re missing out by booking further away from the central activity center, Park City is not a huge place, so chances are you’ll be just fine staying a few miles away from the venue. If you’re a first time visitor trying to save a few bucks along the way, booking an accommodation off the main drag is a great way to make your Sundance Festival experience as economical as it will be entertaining.
If you plan to attend with multiple people, consider booking an Airbnb or condo a few miles out from the festival grounds. You’ll save money with the group accommodation, and you’ll be no less out of the way than other festival-goers. Shuttles operating the week of the festival make runs until 3AM each night, and as long as you’re within 4-5 miles of the Sundance Resort, you’ll be well within the shuttle radius, at about a third of the cost of closer spots.
Plan your festival schedule early if you want to see the big name films
Skip the lines by purchasing tickets ahead of time. One of the most inconvenient (and unexpected) aspects of the Sundance Film Festival is the massive lines that accumulate ahead of headlining films. If you don’t have a pre-purchased pass or ticket to a specific show, waiting in line for the most popular films can easily take up 3-4 hours in a single day. Those hours are valuable, especially if you’re attending for the first time, but they can be avoided by purchasing advance tickets to specific showings.
If you can’t find advance tickets for a film you were hoping to see, not all is lost. Day-of tickets can be purchased starting at 8 a.m. and are usually priced somewhere between $20-$25. They sell out fast for the big-name shows, but if you arrive early enough you should be able to find tickets for at least a couple of the day’s films you were hoping to catch. You may also join the Festival’s eWaitlist, which allows visitors to electronically enter a ticket queue 2 hours before designated showtimes.
The other strategy to avoid day-long queues is to avoid the high profile showings altogether. There are hundreds of other, smaller-budget films that are easily attended without advance tickets. And this can be the most fun way to explore the festival. You never know what you might discover if you just see the films that fit into your schedule. Most of the big name, buzz-worthy films at the festival will eventually make their way into theaters anyway, or to the popular streaming platforms like Amazon Prime or Netflix, so chances are if you skip out on seeing it at the festival, you’ll be able to see it in another venue very soon.
Don't forget your snow pants
Prep for cold weather by packing your cold weather gear. The fact of Park City in January is that it will be snowy, so plan accordingly, especially if you’re not used to the wintery weather. While the city functions well in the snow, there will inevitably be times when you’re stuck outside, either waiting in line for movie tickets or simply waiting for the next bus to take you to your destination of choice. Bring your comfiest down jacket, a sturdy pair of boots, a beanie, a pair of gloves and leave your warm-weather gear at home.
Relax and enjoy the Sundance Festival experience
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Regardless of how and when you choose to attend the Sundance Film Festival, don’t spend too much time fretting about crafting the perfect itinerary. Inevitably, there will be unexpected twists and turns that make your Sundance Festival experience unique. At the end of the day, while it’s important to plan your first Festival visit, it’s also important to leave some room for discovery your first time around. Avoiding the tendency to overplan will help you enjoy your Sundance experience without focusing too much on things lining up perfectly.