Sundance Film Festival: When Hollywood Takes Over a Small Mountain Town

Locations in this article:  Los Angeles, CA Salt Lake City, UT

Uma Thurman travelIf you live in Park City, Utah, you’re used to the Sundance Film Festival taking over your town for 10 days in mid-January.

You’ve adjusted to the tsunami of movie stars and executives who fly in from Los Angeles and New York during the first weekend.

You know you can’t get a room for an out-of-town friend.

The bumper-to-bumper rush hour is as bad as downtown L.A. on a weekday.

If you want a table at Zoom, the Blind Dog Grill, Riverhorse Cafe, Grappa, or even the Eating Establishment, you have to make a reservation months in advance.

In Park City every table is taken by a movie star, writer, director, studio executive, agent, or a manager who’s trying to grab a quick bite to eat before rushing off to their next meeting or movie. And if all the tables aren’t reserved by individuals, then the whole restaurant is booked for a private party.

After its premiere, every film has a party. The smaller films have modest get-togethers, while the better-funded movies throw big, noisy parties with lots of food and drinks.

Sundance QuesadillaIt might be difficult to get into a restaurant, but for those 10 days locals have the opportunity to see the most amazing variety of films. The festival screens hundreds of feature films, documentaries, and shorts at a half-dozen theaters, some small, some auditorium sized. The usual six degrees of separation between people becomes zero degrees as the general public sits with the famous and powerful.

That’s part of the fun. Maybe you work on a ranch outside of Salt Lake and the only celebrities you see are on TV, but at the festival you can find yourself sitting next to Kevin Spacey, Jim Carrey, Josh Brolin, or Uma Thurman.

The programmers at Sundance are especially good at presenting a survey of the year’s most interesting yet-to-be-released films. Some are keenly observed, light-hearted entertainments. Some are portraits of difficult people under stress. Some are optimistic post-Obama visions of a world righting itself. Whatever their approach to the human experience, they are all engaging.

Going to a film festival can be an existential experience. A normal human being interested in film sees one, maybe two movies a month. At a festival that number is multiplied many-fold. Films are screened starting at 8:30 a.m. More than 50 films are screened each day, the last ones at midnight, so a cineaste can pack in as many as six films a day.

Sundance main streetBut like long-distance swimmers who are known to hallucinate mid-way in their journeys, a festival-goer can suffer disorientation from having seen too many films. Experienced festival attendees know that three to four films a day are more than sufficient. Indie films challenge their audiences, demanding that they become emotionally engaged with people and situations they might never encounter.

After the first weekend, the tide begins to turn as industry types head home. There are still movie stars aplenty for the entire run of the festival, but increasingly the theaters are filled with locals. Interestingly, even with the economic downturn, the 2009 Sundance Film Festival saw an increase in ticket sales. Clearly there is a hunger to see films that defy Hollywood conventions.

By day six of Sundance, Park City locals are able to return to their favorite watering holes and hang-outs. It’s still possible to be seated next to a movie star, but at this point, it’s more likely to be a neighbor at the next table.

By the final Sunday after the awards have been presented and the Hollywood types have made their way back to the Salt Lake City airport, Park City returns to normal.

Once again it’s easy to get a table at a favorite restaurant, but not nearly as much fun.

By David Latt for Emmy Award-winning TV producer David Latt has been surrounded by Hollywood types for more than 25 years. Check out his blog at

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