Tag Archives: Sundance Film Festival

Celluloid Has Become A Rarity At The Sundance Film Festival

Happy Christmas

Lena Dunham and Anna Kendrick in “Happy Christmas”

Few annual events have chronicled the movie industry’s transition from 35mm film to digital cinema quite like the Sundance Film Festival. There were times during this year’s festival, which concluded over the weekend, where it was hard not to be reminded of the art form’s long journey from an analog to a digital medium.

When I first started attending Sundance before the turn of the millennium, just about every official selection was shot on 16mm or 35mm film negative and projected using film prints. It was rare to see an entry shot on Beta or high-def video and even rarer to see them projected that way. When the festival did manage to screen titles produced on video they were usually documentaries.

By 2003 the tide had begun to turn as low-budget independent films, both dramatic and documentaries, arrived at the festival either having been shot on Beta SP and HD Cam and were projected using high-def projectors. In those days, there was a stark contrast between entries shot on film versus video. This disparity between the formats was only made all the more obvious upon being projected. Selections shown on film prints were crisp and clear, whereas poor compression aliasing and muted colors often betrayed video when it was being used as a source.

But if time heals all wounds, it also improves technology, at least that which is used for film production. As we neared the end of the “aughts” the quality of entries shot digitally had improved tremendously. It was around this time that Sundance stopped including the medium in which a film was captured, simply denoting whether a title was color or black and white. This was also around the time that the festival began utilizing digital cinema equipment capable of meeting DCI requirements.

In 2008, Sundance premiered “U2 3D“, a 3D concert film featuring the popular rock group, on a giant 45 foot screen. “Cane Toads“, a 3D documentary about an Australian amphibian infestation, was screened in 2010 and by 2012 Sundance was screening a majority of its selections digitally.

Of course, this year the festival is mostly, if not entirely, relying on digital projection. Sundance may have no choice, given the increasing difficulty of actually being able to strike a 35mm release print. Filmmakers have the same issue securing 16 and 35 mm negative when it comes to physical production, forcing them to shoot digitally. However, camera companies such as Red, Arri and Canon have been manufacturing equipment that rivals 35mm when it comes to image quality.

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Sundance Walks A Fine Line With New eWaitlist System

Sundance Film Festival eWaitlist

Purchasing or acquiring tickets for the Sundance Film Festival has never been an easy endeavor, whether for patrons or for the event’s staff. An estimated 50,000 attendees clamor each year for tickets to hundreds of showings of more than 200 films officially selected by festival programmers. Screenings take place in at least 18 different cinemas spread out geographically from Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance, Utah.

As if the programming and venue choice wasn’t complex enough, Sundance has numerous ticket packages that attendees can select; packages for the full festival, VIPs, corporations, students, film industry executives and even local residents, to name just a few. Add to all of this the strict schedule throughout every autumn when most tickets and packages must be purchased and its easy to see why Sundance is hardly for the casual moviegoer.

For those who aren’t lucky enough to nab tickets before the festival, or who aren’t accredited as members of the press corps, there is still hope for seeing some of the most buzzed about films at Sundance each year. Any unsold tickets can be purchased same-day for USD $20 at specific festival box offices, or alternatively you can take your shot through the waitlist for each screening and pay only USD $15.

In years past, “waitlisting” a screening often meant standing in line up to two (and in rare occasions three) hours ahead of time to get a waitlist number, usually in frigid temperatures. This didn’t necessarily guarantee entrance however, since pass and ticket holders might fill up the venue leaving those on the waitlist literally out in the cold. The process was less than optimal and not much fun, though at times one could form friendships or business relationships in a Sundance waitlist line.

This year the festival is trying something new for waitlists to help avoid the hassle of standing in line for hours. Sundance has created an eWaitlist system enabling festival patrons to reserve a spot in line for screenings of specific films up to two hours in advance of their start time. Festival goers who have registered for the service can use the Sundance mobile app, a special Internet site or strategically placed self-serve kiosks to obtain a waitlist number. Attendees can even reserve a waitlist number with a friend, essentially making two reservations at once. Then, all they have to do is show up at the theatre where the film is showing no less than a half hour before it starts and find their spot in the waitlist line based on the number they were issued.

Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. Not only is the whole process new to Sundance veterans and rookies alike, it requires numerous steps every time a reservation is made. The festival’s eWaitlist page is chock full of details and there is even a four minute instructional video on how to use the system:

YouTube Preview Image

When the festival began on January 16th, and throughout the first weekend of the event, the eWaitlist system was continuously down or inaccessible. When one was lucky enough to pull it up on their computer or mobile device, all available waitlist numbers disappeared within seconds as each screening’s reservations were opened up. If you weren’t online trying to reserve a number exactly two hours before a showing, when the eWatlist for the screening opened for reservations, you’d be shutout.

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Klip Collective’s Projection Mapping Impresses Sundance Film Festival Audiences

Before every film screened at the Sundance Film Festival, presently taking place in Park City, Utah, a pre-roll trailer is shown. This has been going for as long as anyone can remember. The trailers, often referred to as “festival bumpers”, are crafted by noteworthy filmmakers, artists or designers and are different each year.

This year the festival turned to Klip Collective, a Philadelphia based production house that has gained a reputation for using technology and various forms of media to create immersive and unique visual experiences. In 2013, Klip Collective created a piece that appeared in the New Frontier section of the festival titled “What’s He Building In There“. Based on a Tom Waits song of the same name, the work was a story about a man inside the building that was projection-mapped onto the front of a festival venue.

The project impressed Sundance officials so much that they were commissioned Klip to create a trailer for the 2014 festival and invited them to bring another project as part of the New Frontier section.

The 2014 Sundance Film Festival trailer (which can be seen above) was meant to mark the 30th anniversary of the event. Like last year’s project, it is a 3D-pixel-mapped work that is projected onto Park City’s Egyptian Theatre, one of the festival’s primary cinemas. The piece prominently features clips from some of the films that have shown at the festival over the years, including “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, “Clerks”, “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Reservoir Dogs”.

The project would not have been possible without the use of modern technology, specifically digital cinema. Two Barco projectors were set up across the street from the Egyptian, which is located on Main Street in Park City, and aligned for pixel precision. The following is a behind the scenes video of how the piece was projected onto the cinema when Klip shot the trailer on July 17, 2013:

One thing about these festival trailers is that for those of us who see upwards of 30 or 40 movies during Sundance, they can become mildly annoying. After seeing the same trailer so many times during the 10 day span of the event, its music and images begin to permanently inhabit our heads even when not watching films. One idea to alleviate such trailer fatigue this year might be to run a contest during the festival; anyone who can name all of the dozens of movies represented or referenced in the bumper wins or is entered into some sort of raffle. Just a thought.

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Sundance Cinemas Brings Its Art House Mentality To Los Angeles

Sundance Sunset CinemaThe opening of the first Sundance Cinemas in Los Angeles seems a perfect way to bring summer to a close. The new theatre opened in the space once occupied by the Sunset 5 which Laemmle Theatres operated for two decades before it was shuttered last December. The new venue has been named Sundance Sunset Cinema and, much like the Sunset 5 before it, will feature mostly independent and art house titles. It opened on August 31st.

Sundance Sunset Cinema is the fifth location to be opened by Sundance Cinemas, which operates theatres in Houston, TX, Madison, WI, San Francisco, CA and Seattle, WA. A sixth location in Westchester, NY is planned for later this year. The circuit is part of the Sundance Group, the corporate entity that houses all of multi-hyphenate Robert Redford’s Sundance related businesses, including the annual festival. The actor/director, who grew up in Los Angeles, recently told KCRW radio host Warren Olney on “Which Way LA“, that the opening of Sundance Sunset Cinema is a bit of a homecoming for him.

“…I feel that it’s a chance to bring back something that I truly loved as a kid,” said Redford. “….you bring it back in a way that you experienced films when you were young. You didn’t see six trailers in a film blasting your ears away.”

Expanding Sundance Cinemas has been a longtime goal of Redford who has always thought the 10-day film festival he holds every January in Park City, Utah could easily expand throughout the entire country if there were theatres to show independent films. In the mid-1990s, as the Sundance Film Festival grew ever larger, Redford said, “…it didn’t seem to have that opportunity because there was still a lock by the major studios and the theater owners. There was not enough space or a place for independent films at that time. So the decision was to go electronically and so we started the Sundance Channel, but in my head the better preference was always going to be could we do a live experience.”

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Sundance Goes Digital With Assistance From Barco

Sundance Film FestivalWhen Barco emailed a press release last Thursday with the subject “Sundance Film Festival expands digital cinema footprint with Barco projectors” I initially figured it must be an error. Sundance is held in Park City, Utah and takes place in January each year. If Barco was looking to get press for this year’s festival they are a little late and if they were trying to get ahead on next year’s event they are way too early.

In fact, the release was about the 2012 festival. Turns out Barco is not only helping theatre owners convert to digital, but they are also giving a hand to film festivals who will ultimately have to adopt the technology. For this past year’s festival Barco provided four additional digital cinema projectors to go with a number of others Sundance was using previously.

You may be wondering why we’re paying any attention to a corporate announcement that comes six weeks after the event in its subject line. Yet the real importance of the release is not necessarily that Barco is supplying film festivals with digital projectors (though it’s great that they are). Rather it is the meaning found between the words and sentences of the press notice that truly matters. It’s not written in black and white, but more of an invisible gray.

For those who may not be familiar with the Sundance Film Festival (i.e. non-film buffs or intelligent life forms from other planets), it is the premiere independent film festival in North America. Along with those in Berlin, Cannes, Telluride, Toronoto and Venice, it is one of the largest such festivals held each year. It has become known as the launching pad for such filmmakers as Darren Aranofsky, the Coen Brothers, Spike Lee, Christopher Nolan, Robert Rodriguez, David O. Russell, Bryan Singer, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and countless others. “Precious”, “Blood Simple”, “Little Miss Sunshine”, “sex, lies, and videotape”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “The Blair Witch Project”, “American Splendor” and “Super Size Me” are just a few of the indie-films which were first shown to the public at Sundance.

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3D Makes Impact At Sundance

Last week at the Sundance Film Festival one of the hottest tickets in Park City, the Utah mining town cum ski resort in which the festival is held, was to the premiere of the concert film “U2 3D”. Like at the Cannes Film Festival, all four members of the Irish rock group U2 showed up to promote the film. Unlike in Cannes, they did not perform on the red carpet. This may have been due to the snowy weather and freezing temperatures which dipped into the teens on most nights.

Even before the film officially screened at the festival, there was a flurry of media attention focused on the premiere sparked in part by Dolby Laboratories’ press release announcing that the film would be screened using Dolby 3D technology. This wasn’t much of a surprise given that Dolby has been sponsor and providing sound support to the festival for many years now. Sarah Pierce, the director of operations for the Sundance Film Festival pointed out that Dolby wound up being the perfect technology for exhibiting films in 3D:

“. . . it allows us to easily switch between 3D and 2D films. Since we have a full slate to screen, we cannot afford to devote one theatre entirely to 3D. By using the white screens already in place, we can shift between formats within minutes.”

What Pierce was referring to is the color filtering technology Dolby licensed from Infitec that allows 3D films to be screened without the use of a special silver screen, the kind used by Real D to display films in 3D. However, this also meant that the festival would have to provide more than 1,200 pairs of Dolby’s special shutter glasses to view the premiere, rather than the cheap disposable polarized lenses which Real D requires. At upwards of $50 a pair one can only imagine Dolby was biting their fingernails hoping festival goers didn’t walk off with them as a souvenir.U2 at the Sundance Film Festival

Sundance is primarily known as a film festival meant to promote independent films and while the titles in the premiere section of the event have been known to attract celebrity attendance, it is safe to say U2, arguably one of the most popular rock bands in the world, is one of the biggest names to ever slush their way through the snow into one of the event’s screenings. And as is the case at Sundance, the press was there to cover every moment. One piece that truly captured what it was like to be at the Eccles Theatre where “U2 3D” premiered appeared on Conde Nast’s Portfolio where Fred Schruers wrote:

“. . . a solidly enjoyable experience for not just U2 fans but anyone who wants to see where exhibition technology is heading.”

Even BusinessWeek tried to raise their hipness factor by having their media columnist Jon Fine write about the premiere. His piece uses the “U2 3D” premiere as a means to examine how the film industry is in a time of transition, fighting to maintain a dwindling audience as it searches for “a technological silver bullet”. Most of Fine’s column details the tech panels he attended, before eventually turning to the premiere, of which he was admittedly impressed:

“The film was gorgeous; refreshingly, few objects and people popped out at you, although at one point Bono reached so far out of the screen that you could practically smell what was under his fingernails. . . I don’t care for U2, but the experience was undeniable. For a brief time, a thousand of us sat agape in the dark, utterly submerged in an ocean of visual delight. For a brief time at Sundance, no one checked e-mail or chatted on the cell.”

Speaking from personal experience, sitting through a screening at the Sundance Film Festival in which nobody checks email or answers a cell phone call is definitely a newsworthy occurrence.