Author’s Note: Though I work as a volunteer for the Sundance Film Festival, any opinions expressed here represent only my own feelings and should not be attributed to the Sundance Institute or any affliated festival sponsers.
Last month, Park City, Utah swelled to bursting as people came from all over the world to enjoy the screenings and events surrounding the Sundance Film Festival. The Festival turned 30 this year and in those three decades has grown from a simple idea to create a platform for independent filmmakers to develop their work into a frenzy with attendees spending $56.7 million during the course of the festival last year.
It is a fascinating event to be a part of and I have participated as both an audience member and theatre operations team member for the past two festivals. Interacting with hundreds of people with different personalities and preferences and expectations when I usually work from home by myself taught me more than a few lessons this year. Some more universally applicable than others.
Starting out upset doesn’t get you what you want any faster.
With hundreds of people trying to get into the same small theatre for a screening, at some point you may have to deliver disappointing news about the ultimate outcome of all that waiting in line. Sometimes the answer is just this screening is completely full’ and no matter how badly they want in, there’s nothing to be done. Most people nobly accept defeat, but sometimes even people who got those coveted seats are angry or dissatisfied with their prize.
One woman poked her head out of a theatre while I was on duty moments before the film was to begin. She came out mid-sentence already spitting fire and venom about having a seat in the neck-cranking front row without even knowing yet if she would be challenged. I watched how curt she was with the film’s publicist and sales agent as she reminded them that she was deciding whether the buy the picture and had the worst seat in the house. I wondered what it felt like to skip straight to such negative tactics in trying to get what you want. It seemed like such an incredible waste of energy and she must have become numbed to how unneccarily uncomfortable she made everyone around her. She did get a different seat in the house, but she didn’t get it for herself any faster for having snapped and puffed up; distinguishable from a territorial silverback gorilla only by the credential dangling from her neck.
Press and Industry people have commitment issues.
For the most part, I found the press and industry members to be lovely and patient and easy to work with. I liked talking with those that struck up conversations with me as I manned my post as an usher inside the theatre. I watched with interest at the consistency of the way the theatre seats filled up with bustling press people, their coffee in one hand and their ipad in the other. Without fail, they filled up the aisle seats first. In fact, sometimes a patron would enter the theatre and stop short right next to me looking hopelessly at the rows and rows of seats as though they were full. I could see easily 50 empty seats, but if the aisles were filled, the place may as well be inaccessibly packed.
I realized after a while that they didn’t want an inside seat because they didn’t want to have to commit to stay. They wanted the option to leave with relatively little difficulty. Now I understand that it is professionally wise to not spend more time in a film than it takes for you to know that you aren’t interested in writing about it or distributing it. There are literally dozens of other films playing, I get it, but it made me wonder in what areas of my life I’m continually taking an aisle seat. There are times when I’ve committed to a choice thinking I’m burning the ships Cortez and not looking back, when I’ve actually just quietly occupied an aisle seat with one eye on the door. At some point, to fully enjoy the spoils of a decision, you will have to sit squarely in the center of the row.
If you laugh louder, Paul Rudd still won’t hear you.
One of the best parts of Sundance is the opportunity to interact with the director of the film you’ve just seen. Sometimes, you’ll even get the chance to attend the world premiere screening of a film. The energy at these premieres is electric. It is generally attended by the filmmakers and actors and their anticipation is contagious as they wait with baited breath to see how the audience with react to all of their hard work.
I sat in the very front row for one such premiere and a few minutes before the show began, I heard a gasp and then lots of frantic whispering and the crowd began to stand and pull out their phones to take pictures as it was clear that the well-known members of the film’s cast had just entered the room. It was fun to glance over and see Paul Rudd (someone I’ve had a baby crush on since the 90s) and Amy Poehler lean together and take a selfie; to have a look in the everyday, normal-people actions of people that seem so larger than life on the screen. I’ll admit it, sitting downwind from a star-studded section of seats was fun, but it didn’t make me like the movie better to know that they were there.
It was strange actually, to listen to the roaring laughter that continued even after I was sort of bored with the film. I listened intently to the audience as they vocalized their cartoonish approval and heard the tiniest hint of desperation in it. Now, a certain percentage of that laughter will have been genuine, just because it wasn’t my taste doesn’t mean it wasn’t hilarious to someone else. That’s one of the purposes of the Sundance Film Festival, to explore new ways of storytelling and give filmmakers access that part of the public that speaks their language. But I recognized (with a smile) that that little desperate cackle that brought the room above the normal level of a comedic viewing experience, were people in the audience that hoped that somehow Paul Rudd (or one of the other actors or a casting director or a fairy godmother or any of these glitzy people that are some removed from the pains of everyday life…) would hear their laugh above all the rest and somehow deliver them from the ordinary.
People will make fun of Mormons for a long time before asking if you are one.
Park City is a name that mocks you as you frantically conclude for the 4th day in a row that there is nowhere to park. Fortunately, the festival and the city run an impressive free shuttle system to get you where you need to go. The shuttles are an interesting opportunity to chat with would-be strangers that you are guaranteed to have at least one thing in common with.
Of the roughly 50,000 people that attend the festival, about 65% are from out of town. Though you are in Utah, for those ten days it doesn’t really feel like Utah and being a member of the Church no longer bears that sort of “isn’t everybody?” feeling that living in Provo for 5 years makes one accustomed to.
I like the feeling though, I appreciate opportunities to leave a positive impression of what Mormons are like on someone who may be otherwise working under some false assumptions. Unfortunately however, I have yet to master the art of nipping a those crazy Mormons’ tirade in the bud before it gets embarrassing to add that you are one of the people in question. Not embarrassing for you to be a Mormon (true blue through and through), but embarrassing for them to have said all that to you in familiarity and agreement and then being instantly worried they may have offended.
I have found that, in general, even people that have a lot of misconceptions or even hostility towards Mormonism will be respectful to you as an individual when they find out that you are Mormon if you are polite and calm in your responses to them. Not a universal truth, but a pattern I’ve observed nonetheless. I will say though, it seems to take a lot of dull grunts from you in response to their commentary before your random bus buddy finally says, “Oh, are you Mormon?”
The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.
My greatest lesson of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival is a lesson that I learn from new people and in new places on the daily. That lesson: there’s so much left for me to learn. It’s always the moment when I feel like I really have a handle on this life thing that I’m confronted with a picture of all that I wasn’t aware of. Sometimes, as in the case of the Sundance film, Last Days in Vietnam, there is a whole new part of the story you didn’t know about. Sometimes, you are shown what you already know to be true in a new and beautiful way as was my experience with Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. You just didn’t know before how many other ways there were to express what it is that you know. And sometimes, you are introduced to something you knew absolutely nothing about. I was assigned to usher a film I would otherwise have never seen called Finding Fela that documented the life and times and global effect of a man I had heretofore never even heard of: Fela Kuti. It made me wonder about all the other men and women and movements that I have yet to learn about, people that have contributed to my current understanding of the world without my even knowing it.
Bonus Lesson: Guy on the street with an owl and any offer of free food creates a bigger crowd than most celebrities.
I learned lessons from the films as well as from the filmmakers and film-watchers. I hope that we never conclude that we know all that we need to know.