Virtual Sundance and the Resilience of Film Festivals

Recently, I had the dubious privilege of attending the 2021 Virtual Sundance Film Festival. Privilege, because I didn’t have to pay, and dubious, because while the festival is internationally renowned, the new virtual experience was significantly changed from normal years. I’ve never attended the festival in full but, growing up around it, I’ve managed to catch a few premieres. While the virtual festival certainly offered some benefits, such as being able to watch from home, pause and even talk through movies, I doubt that, come next year, the festival will remain virtual. In a year when streaming services have proven the redundancy and irrelevance of theatres, Sundance, as a tactile experience, will probably remain.

This is partly because of the people who attend Sundance. Sundance is an overwhelming event to those who buy fully into it. They can watch up to four or five movies a day for its week-long run time (an accomplishment I was unfortunate enough to replicate during this truncated festival) and when they’re not watching movies, they’re thinking about which ones they will watch. My physics teacher in high school was the prototypical Sundance attendee. Most of his free time during the day was spent keeping up with the hottest films of the festival, making sure he got tickets and arranging events for the high school students to go and see interesting documentaries. He enjoyed meeting the directors and was a gregarious interrogator during the Q&A. It’s harder to get as excited about questions when they’re asked robotically over Zoom chat, as they were this year.

Streaming services will probably be the future for many big-budget movies. Except for a few auteurs, such as Christopher Nolan, who still insist on theatres in the belief that the big-screen experience is vital to enjoying their art, many movies will go directly to streaming services. Not only is it cheaper for the distribution companies, it’s also more convenient for the consumer. 

There’s much about theatres that rankles some people; other movie-goers, the crinkling of snacks, the glare of — or the prohibition on — phones, the drive and the cost. But the rise of streaming will also coincide with a downgrade in the importance of the movie. The movie is being domesticated by streaming services. Some people will, of course, recreate the old rituals of the theatre in their home; dark rooms and big screens and no phones or talking. But if they have to pee mid-scene, they’ll still pause to get up. The theatre demands a certain level of reverence and attention, even for the lowest tier schlock. That reverence and attention are unique today and something only given to movies. Watching a movie in a theatre requires a solid block of darkened time in which one can not do anything else. The theatre is an intentional inconvenience. Streaming is an abundant convenience.

Sundance and other film festivals stand in opposition to the domestication of film. They are the cinephile’s delight, and I don’t doubt that in late 2021, 2022 and beyond, film festivals will return to an in-person format. 

I enjoyed all the benefits of the virtual festival this year, but for the true Sundance-lover, it lacked many of its most essential features. My physics teacher missed meeting other people, though he acknowledged the convenience. He also noted that it was easy to pause movies, go and do chores or run errands mid-film. If Sundance, as the embodiment of a general attitude towards film, wants to avoid one thing, it’s the idea that movies can be interrupted. Festivals are a pronouncement of the importance of film; a Roman-style gorging of movies. They are, literally, a celebration of movies as art. I can’t think of one thing more opposed to that philosophy than when watching a film at the virtual festival early in the morning, the sun peeked through a window and suddenly blinded me.