Here we go again? Hopefully not. And while it’s not the best start for 2022, it’s likely the right decision… and there is hope ahead (see below). Just two weeks before it was to be held in Park City, Utah, the Sundance Film Festival is canceling its in-person festival and reverting to an entirely virtual edition due to the current coronavirus surge.
Festival organizers announced Wednesday that the festival will start as scheduled on January 20 but will shift online. The festival had been planned as a hybrid, with screenings both in Park City and online. Last year’s Sundance was also held virtually because of the pandemic.
“This was a difficult decision to make,” the festival said in a statement. “As a nonprofit, our Sundance spirit is in making something work against the odds. But with case numbers forecasted to peak in our host community the week of the festival we cannot knowingly put our staff and community at risk. The undue stress to Summit County’s health services and our more than 1,500 staff and volunteers would be irresponsible in this climate.”
There was an ominous sign that this move by Sundance might be eminent when its Park City counterpart, Slamdance, opted to cancel its in-person and go all-virtual. At the time, Sundance Film Festival had announced it would be proceeding with a hybrid of in-person and virtual screenings, but with heightened restrictions across the board. The festival had declared vaccination boosters would be required for attendees and audience capacity would be slimmed down at screenings and events. But with the latest Omicron surge, Sundance ultimately decided to shutter its in-person events as well.
But There Is Hope
The cancellation of an in-person Sundance is a significant setback to an independent film industry that has struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. But there is hope.
Washington Post health reporter Dan Diamond signaled that this aggressive wave of infection may soon lead to brighter days ahead, in his interview with Slate released earlier today. “That is the hope, that this tough omicron wave is going to pass and leave us with more immunity across the population,” Diamond declared to Slate‘s Mary Harris. “Omicron is challenging us because of its mutations, and it is evading the antibodies that would have been able to latch on and block earlier forms of COVID. But it does appear that if you are infected with omicron, you are left with now more protection against whatever next variant comes, including potentially delta, this earlier variant. So that is the hope, that if it’s going to tear through the population, if some people are going to have serious symptoms but many people have relatively mild symptoms, now there’s this new coat of armor around the world.“
Chicago Filmmakers Chime In
The Windy City-based investor and philanthropist collective, Chicago Media Project, has a whopping five documentary features they supported that cracked the coveted Sundance slate this year. So as you might imagine, the news of Sundance canceling its in-person festivities is less-than-ideal for the CMP team, but they are taking it in stride…
“A disappointing headline to read today about Sundance, but the fest is doing the right thing,” Hussain Currimbhoy, CMP’s Director of Global Project Development and Investment, told SCREEN. “I feel for the staff who work like crazy to always put on the most fun and memorable event and of course I feel for the filmmakers. But I guess I’ll just be spending a lot more time on the New Frontier Spaceship this year and I am looking forward to that.”
Looking Ahead to Virtual Sundance
“While we’re disappointed to not provide the full hybrid experience and gather in-person as intended, audiences this year will still experience the magic and energy of our Festival with bold new films and XR work, the discovery of new storytellers, direct encounters with artists, and an innovative globally accessible social platform and gallery space” Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente said in a statement. “Our partner community will also be adding a vibrant dimension to the festival with a rich mix of conversation, talent talks and events.”
Sundance, which runs January 20-30, earlier announced a slate of 82 feature-length films selected from more than 3,700 submissions. Kim Yutani, Sundance’s director of programming said at the time that “this year’s program reflects the unsettling and uncertain times we’ve been living in for the past year and a half.”
Will other major national festivals the likes of South By Southwest (SXSW) in March and Tribeca in the Spring follow suit? We will all know soon enough. Please check back at SCREEN for updates in the weeks ahead, and please stay safe.