A Screenwriter’s Guide to the Sundance Film Festival: Maximizing the Bang for Your Buck [STPS #11]

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the great movie meccas. About 120,000 people (1/3 from Utah)  attended all or part of the 11-day event in 2019, and many indie filmmakers dream about having their films selected by the Festival.

The competition is fierce. For the 2019 Festival, 14,200 submissions — a record high – vied for slots, including those for 112 feature films.

Many films (and some future Oscar-winners) got a turbo boost from Sundance buzz, including (as the Festival website notes):

Sorry to Bother You, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Eighth Grade, Get Out , The Big Sick, Mudbound, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Fruitvale Station, Whiplash, Brooklyn, Precious, The Cove, Little Miss Sunshine, An Inconvenient Truth , Napoleon Dynamite, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Reservoir Dogs and sex, lies, and videotape. 

If you have a film accepted to Sundance, then attending is a no-brainer. Of course you’ll want to be on hand when Amazon, Apple, and other streaming services are conducting bidding wars for Festival favorites.

But what if you’re “just” a screenwriter – and maybe one without any credits? Is it still worth it?

Well…. maybe.

Unlike, for example, the Austin Film Festival, Sundance isn’t especially oriented toward screenwriting. You’re not likely to pick up any great screenwriting advice or even meet any other screenwriters.

But Sundance is fun – if your idea of fun is:

  • shivering in the ticket-holders’ line so you can tell your friends about movies that won’t be in theaters for 10 months,
  • marveling at the perfection of Lupita Nyong’o as she talks about how she learned to play the ukulele for the zombie film Little Monsters,
  • strategizing about how to get into parties you haven’t actually been invited to, and
  • watching Jeff Goldblum get mobbed by paparazzi outside the Hollywood Reporter

So it’s maybe not for everyone.

But if you decide it’s for you, here are some ways to save money and maximize the value of the experience.

Book Everything Early

 Sundance is hella expensive, and things can sell out fast.

Tickets, Passes, and Packages

Passes and packages for the 2020 Festival go on sale October 17, 2019. One important thing to know is that the Festival is divided into the “first half” (January 23-28, 2020) and the “second half” (January 29-February 2). The first half is where most of the action is, and the town of Park City, Utah, where most of the Festival takes place, really clears out by the second half.

An express pass to the first half is – gulp — $4,000. But you can get a more limited pass for as little as $300.

A 10-ticket package runs $700 for the first half; but a package of six shorts tickets is only $100.

Utah natives get special deals, and individual film tickets are available for $25.

Ignite” is a special package for people age 18-25 that costs $250 and gets you 10 movie tickets, five wait-list vouchers, access to special panels, and an official credential – which is the golden ticket for getting into many events.

If you don’t care so much about watching movies, but just want to get into the non-ticketed events (like panels), an official credential costs $300 for the entire festival.  That might be your best option if you’re just going to Sundance for the schmoozing and star-spotting potential and don’t qualify for an Ignite pass.

Boston screenwriter Adam Pachter has been to Sundance three years in a row. The first time, he saw a lot of movies and went to few parties. In 2019, he saw one film and went to a lot of parties. As he says,

This may be Sundance heresy, but for me a movie represents 2-3 hours when I can’t meet anyone. As a screenwriter based outside of Hollywood, networking is essential. And I can meet more people at one Sundance party than in a week or two in LA . . . because in LA, those people aren’t ever at the same event!

At just one event this year, I met an accomplished director, a best-selling author, the founder of a TV festival, and the head of lit at a major management company.

Overall I attended more than 20 events in three days, and almost every one was worthwhile. Sundance is a great place to meet filmmakers and learn about their work and your shared areas of interest. Then I go home and watch the films later.

You can pick up a few individual tickets for films, just so you have something to talk about with the people you meet at venues like the Filmmaker’s Lodge.

Airfare

The cost of airfare depends, of course, on where you’re coming from. For US tickets, it’s considered wise to shop for tickets between three months and 30 days before departure; for international flights, the window is five and a half months to one and a half months. But with 120,000 people coming into town, some flights (especially from places like LA and New York) will book up early. Look for flights into Salt Lake City – the nearest major airport.

Lodging

As of mid-October, 26% of the Airbnb listing for Park City for the first week of the Festival have been booked. If you want to stay in the middle of things, even a dorm bed in a hostel will run about $120 per night.  You can get a studio condo for $399 per night.  If you want to splurge and stay at the Park City Waldorf, a junior suite will cost $1248 per night.

It’s much cheaper to stay outside of Park City, and drive in for the Festival every day, but it’s also less convenient. The savings on accommodations may be eaten up by the cost of a rental car and gas, you have to be comfortable driving on potentially treacherous mountain roads, and of course you can’t drive yourself back to your motel if you’ve been drinking at a party.

You don’t really need to stay near Main Street in Park City, since Festival venues are all over town and frequent shuttle busses run between them. Unless you like long, cold walks or want to pay for a lot of ride-shares, pick a location that’s close to a shuttle route.

Pro tip: The temperature will usually be around freezing, so dress warmly. This means a parka, long underwear, hat, gloves, and waterproof boots with good tread that can handle icy sidewalks. Sundance isn’t about being fashionable, and even movie stars mostly dress casually.

Bring Friends

One of the best ways to save money on lodging is to share with friends. For example, you can get an eight-bed condo on Airbnb for $995 per night, making the per-person cost “only” a little more than $100 per night. Having a real kitchen will also let you save money on food once you get sick of the free granola bars (see below).

Attending with friends also gives you a posse to hang out with, and potentially expands your networking opportunities (assuming you all try to meet OTHER people and don’t just hang out together).

Eat the Free Food

As soon as you arrive in Park City, it becomes obvious that Sundance isn’t just about the cinematic art. It’s a trade show.

Everything that CAN be sponsored WILL be sponsored. Main Street is lined with “lounges” sponsored by brands: clothes, liquor, cars, banking, etc.

Food can appear in unexpected ways. You may be waiting in line when Postmates starts hurling donuts around.

Swag is ubiquitous and varied. You may even be handed a free DNA test from Ancestry.com (a $99 value) and discover (as I did) that you’re 36% Norwegian and have a far more interesting family history than you ever imagined.

In exchange for your attention, vendors will ply you with free food and drink. If you can live on lattes, chai-flavored caramel corn, beef jerky, and granola bars, you’re golden.

If you do have to break down and actually PAY for food, some of the cheapest options are in the concession tents next to the main film venues.

Pro tip: Stay hydrated! You’ll be high in the mountains and it’s dry. You may get a free water bottle as part of your Festival package, or you may get one as swag. If all else fails, you can buy an official one as a useful souvenir at one of the many Festival shops.

Win a Contest

There are several ways that you can go to Sundance for free.

By becoming a Sundance Institute Member (starting at $65) by November 3, 2019 you’ll be automatically entered for a chance to win a trip that includes airfare, lodging, passes, party invites, dinner, and a goody bag. You can also enter the content without becoming a member.

The Black List sponsors the Cassian Elwes Independent Screenwriting Fellowship, which awards one screenwriter each year an all-expenses paid trip to the Festival and an opportunity to meet with producer Cassian Elwes (Mudbound, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club).

Unrepresented feature writers with an “independent sensibility” who have made less than $5,000 in their film or television writing careers can opt into consideration via the Black List website until November 8, 2019.

Volunteer

Sundance is run by more than 2,400 volunteers from around the world. Applications are open from July to November. Benefits include access to non-ticketed venues as space permits, volunteer screenings, a winter jacket with the Sundance logo, a party, and snacks.

Get a Journalism Gig

 If you’ve ever covered a film festival in the past (and have the clips to prove it), you can apply for a press pass that will get you a credential and 10 free tickets for screenings.

The initial press accreditation application window is open until November 15.

Don’t Stare at Your Phone

 If you’re going to Sundance to network, you’ll need to make an effort to actually meet people. You’ll have lots of opportunities, because a lot of the Sundance experience involves waiting in line – to get into movies, to get on the shuttle buses, etc. Keep your phone in your parka pocket and strike up conversations with the people next to you.

“What have you seen?” is the standard conversation-starter. Asking “What brings you to the Festival?” can be an efficient way to find out what role other people play in the industry.

Pro tip:  bring one or more portable phone batteries and an assortment of charging cables, and you can be the hero of your stand-by line.

Bring Business Cards

 If you want to stay in touch with the people you meet, it’s a good idea to have business cards. Don’t scatter these like seed corn on every flat surface; no one’s going to email you randomly. But if you hit it off with someone you meet in line and want to keep the conversation going, a card can be useful.

When you collect cards from others, it’s smart to follow up with an email after you get home, mentioning that you enjoyed meeting them and wishing them good results with their filmmaking projects.

Try to Get into Parties

If you can get into them, Sundance parties offer prime networking potential.

The problem is getting into them.

Big names obviously get proper invitations to big parties sponsored by studios, streamers, and Hollywood agencies. Those are pretty much impossible to crash unless you’re buddies with someone in the business.

But there are plenty of other parties that you can get into with only a Festival credential.  Some of these are listed in the Festival brochure under “Offscreen.”

Often, information about parties circulates by word-of-mouth – another reason to talk to people in line and on shuttle busses.

To find parties, you can also:

  • haunt social media (#sundance), and ask your #FilmTwitter buddies to help you out,
  • Google Sundance + party + 2020,
  • call/email anyone you know who has any connection to the movie industry and ask them to forward invites,
  • check Eventbrite and other event sites, and
  • follow the crowd from any party you get into to the next one.

If you do get invited to a party, be sure to Rsvp, or you may be left off the list at the door.

Come Early and Leave Early

If you can only afford to attend part of Sundance, it’s best to arrive by January 22 so you’re ready to schmooze by the 23d. As noted above, things ramp down quickly after January 28.

Another reason to come early is that Park City is a ski resort – so there’s a risk of being snowed out and missing some of the fun.

It’s impossible to predict whether attending the Sundance Film Festival will be useful to your screenwriting career. But if you love movies (and the people who make them), Sundance is well-worth adding to your bucket list.