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After 3 Years, The Sundance Film Festival Is Back, In Person. Here's Why It Matters More Than Ever

A snowy street scene with snow covered trees in the background, buildings in the foreground with a blue and green sign that says Sundance Film Festival 2023
A snowy beginning of this year's festival.
(Courtesy Sundance Film Festival)
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It isn’t always easy to see movies at the Sundance Film Festival; lines run long, tickets are scarce and, despite the festival’s setting in Park City, Utah, there’s never a spot for your car.

But for the first time in three years, it’s at least possible to see a Sundance movie in person, because the nation’s most important showcase for independent film will unfold in front of live audiences.

The pandemic forced organizers to hold the last two festivals virtually. But even with online-only viewing, Sundance still yielded some memorable outcomes.

A Huge Role For Independent Productions

Take, for example, 2021’s Coda. It went to Sundance without a distributor, but was ultimately picked up by Apple TV+  — for no small sum — and went on to win the best picture Oscar in last year’s Academy Awards.

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So more than anything else, Sundance is a very important market for independently produced films. Movies like Little Miss Sunshine, The Big Sick, Napoleon Dynamite and the Blair Witch Project all premiered there, without a distributor, and went to on varying levels of success.

The Connection To The Oscars

When Oscar nominations for this year’s ceremony are announced on Tuesday, several documentaries that (virtually) premiered at Sundance a year ago are likely to be named, including Fire of Love, Descendant and All That Breathes.

Yet any award attention masks a fundamental challenge for movies made outside the studio system. Sophisticated adult dramas are flopping at the box office as never before, as some of the year’s most heralded releases — including She Said, Tár, Women Talking, Till and even Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans — are playing to nearly empty auditoriums.

A Challenging Marketplace

While streaming platforms can offer an alternative distribution platform (as with Coda), the marketplace is changing for the worse. Disney has lost a staggering $8 billion so far on its sites, including Disney+; Netflix says it’s focusing on bigger, better and fewer movies; and Warner Bros. Discovery (owners of the streaming site HBO Max) are slashing budgets.

Which is why a festival like Sundance is so important for focusing attention on these kinds of movies.

More than 900 U.S. narrative features were submitted to this year’s festival, and only 40 were accepted. Those movies already have accomplished a statistical miracle. Now the real challenge looms: finding a way to an audience.

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