How the Sundance Film Festival reinvented itself

Transforming their 2021 event into a virtual format opened up new possibilities and improved workflows. Sundance Film Festival now has greater reach for more storytellers and film lovers than ever.

Oct 20, 2021
Snowy street at night with theater marquee for Sundance 2021

By Adam Montgomery, Senior Manager of Programming, Sundance Film Festival

Most Januarys, over 100,000 people from around the world descend on the resort town of Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, the largest independent film festival in the United States. Over the course of 10 days, audiences, artists, industry professionals, and journalists gather for screenings, panels, interactive events, and parties to celebrate the very best in independent cinema and media.

The 2020 festival concluded a few short weeks before the beginning of the pandemic. With the next edition less than a year away, there was uncertainty surrounding what the 2021 festival would look like. Would we be able to return to Utah for a live event, move entirely online, or could we pull off a hybrid festival? Our team planned for each scenario so no matter the state of the world, we would be able to present artists' new work and bring communities together around the craft of storytelling. 

After a great deal of soul searching, Sundance Institute decided that the entire 2021 Sundance Film Festival program would be available entirely online, with select live screenings across the country. It was a massive undertaking complicated by our new reality of remote collaboration across (at least) five time zones. Our organization transformed the face of our festival to make it more accessible in a truly exceptional year.

2 people and one little dog on the virtual Dailies screen from Sundance

Behind the scenes

My role within the Festival Programming department is to oversee the selection process for the 15,000+ annual submissions. Our team of 60 ensures that all submissions are viewed thoughtfully and thoroughly, which enables us to discover new and fresh voices that represent the best in independent storytelling. 

Once the Programming team determines the final festival lineup, acceptance calls are made and the arduous process of gathering and organizing information begins. Film stills, director headshots, written synopses, credits, and a plethora of additional information are collected on a tight deadline. Filmmakers feverishly work on finalizing their cuts to screen online or in our festival venues.

Awaiting the delivery of these materials is Holden Payne, our Technical Director of Exhibition. His team inspects video files and Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs) for sound and image quality to ensure that everything is up to snuff for festival presentation. Essentially, Holden is in charge of everything festival-goers see and hear during film screenings and festival panels, whether exhibited online or in a theatre.

working behind the scenes at Sundance
man with mask sitting with clipboard

New uses for a familiar tool

Holden and I had been working together for about eight years and knew we already had a great tool to help with the transition online: Dropbox. We used it to request and share video content used throughout the festival for panels, our awards ceremony, and many other uses. I'd source and edit film snippets and put them in a shared Dropbox folder for Holden’s team to package and present. I also had panelists submit clips they wanted to screen and acceptance speeches from absentee award winners via Dropbox. It’s far more simple and streamlined to have them upload a file than to deal with email attachments and links.

As someone who works from multiple laptops, tablets, a video editing tower, and my office computer, I need my files to be available from anywhere. Dropbox makes this possible, seamlessly.

Dropbox has enabled us to adapt to evolving technology within our selection process.

My first assignment at Sundance was to transition our festival submissions from VHS to DVD. We went from an archaic system of paper applications and analog videotapes to an online application that would allow festival hopefuls to upload video files for our consideration. Knowing that it would take time for everyone to adapt, we allowed people to deliver their films to us in any format. 

We have finally emerged from the dark ages of physical media, but competing digital technologies present a problem of their own. Disparate private links and standalone secure online platforms with viewing instructions often delivered via email make it difficult to keep track of thousands of submissions. Dropbox has proven to be an invaluable and always-in-sync tool for simplifying this process, giving us a central location to coordinate our viewing and selection processes. Dropbox also integrates seamlessly with platforms we use daily, making it our go-to hub for collaboration. 

FIlmmaker edits on computer; Snowy Park City street with banner for Sundance Film Festival

Leveling the playing field

Selective sync saves space

While setting up Dropbox on any device has proven simple and straightforward, a stumbling block for new users is hard drive space. Many of our team members’ laptops don’t feature a ton of storage space and they’re reluctant to install anything else. After walking them through the very easy process of installing Dropbox with selective sync, I was able to show them how to sync only the files they need. In my experience, this process isn’t nearly as straightforward on other cloud-based collaborative platforms, resulting in drives clogged with huge files that don’t need to be stored locally.

Always the right version

Dropbox also eliminates something we call “version fatigue.” Instead of modifying the file name with each change, comments are left regarding any changes. With that, we always know which version of the file is the latest without having to comb through a folder filled with files titled SundanceFinalv1, SundanceFinalv2, or worse, SundanceFinalFINAL. Sometimes, we're still making tiny changes in the hours and minutes leading up to a screening. We need to know that the clip or film we're about to show is the most updated cut without having to triple-check multiple versions.

Easy integration eliminates barriers

I use Dropbox for all my file storage, but my number one integration is Vimeo. I can create a Dropbox folder that automatically shares files to my Vimeo channel with all of the privacy settings I need. I can send a request to an artist or festival panelist to upload a new cut of their film or any other video file to that folder and a few minutes later, I can watch it. The Dropbox Vimeo integration levels the playing field for any of our constituents and collaborators who don't have access to high-capacity Vimeo or Dropbox accounts. They can upload their project to Sundance’s Dropbox account at no cost, which also serves to eliminate any financial barriers to sending us their work.

Outdoor marquee displaying Sundance Institute Presents Jockey
Outdoor film screening in the mountains

Success worth repeating

The virtual edition of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival was a tremendous success. Submission volume was in line with past years and any fears that filmmakers would skip the 2021 festival never materialized. We received both high-profile films that had bypassed other festivals and premiered work from exciting new artists all around the globe.

We also increased our audience. Via the online platform, our number of viewers doubled, and we were able to co-present satellite screenings in 24 states throughout the festival. Additionally, every film screened in 2021 was closed captioned, so even more people were able to enjoy Sundance than ever before.

As a global organization, Sundance has always known that remote work can still be personal and productive without sharing a physical space. Dropbox creates a sense of togetherness because we all view and comment on the same files, folders, and videos, even though we're in different cities, time zones, or even countries.

Dropbox increased our team’s collaboration while working from home, which has increased our flexibility and could revolutionize our office culture.

We had to reinvent the wheel in 2021, and Sundance embraced Dropbox to shift to a new format in the middle of a pandemic. We’re in the thick of planning next year’s edition, but we’ve seen a future in how the virtual edition broadened our reach and expanded our audience. There’s no doubt that physical and online programming will overlap in that future.

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