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An ideal year to hit film festivals

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PARK CITY — If you've ever thought about attending the Sundance Film Festival but were frightened away by the long lines and crowds, this could be your year.

The national economy is sagging, the attacks of Sept. 11 are fresh in every American's mind, and the film festival dates were pushed into mid-January because of that other big event headed this way, the 2002 Winter Games.

All of that is expected to curtail attendance at this year's festival Jan. 10-20, as well as the Slamdance Film Festival Jan. 11-19 and the four other festivals that have so far informed the city of their intent to screen independent features and shorts during the same 10-day period.

At least two other film festivals were expected to submit applications with the city this week, for a total of eight. That's down more than half from last year's 17 festivals, another indication that the economy and other events may keep attendance down this year.

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"We expect the numbers to be down slightly, maybe not as far down as if you'd asked me a month or so ago," said Tom Bakaly, Park City's assistant city manager. "This might be the year for locals to come up and enjoy the festival. It may be less crowded than in the past."

For the second year, Slamdance will be staged up the hill at the Park City Silver Mine, further diluting the Main Street traffic.

Sundance ticket sales to the general public so far are about equal with last year's totals at the same time. But Sundance has sold 60 fewer of its largest ticket packages, which cost $3,000, than it did last year. And film festival co-director Nicole Guillemet said many of the movie industry companies that typically send executives and staffers to Sundance are sending fewer people this year.

"And that's not due to anything else other than a hard economic situation, and it's a decision people had already made in the fall and summer," Guillemet said.

"We've raised our sponsorships, that has been very successful — harder, but successful," she said.

Festival organizers, merchants and city officials alike hope the projected slump for Sundance ends up being less than feared. Business owners here were bracing themselves for a drop of 35 to 50 percent this holiday season, but in fact the ski and tourism traffic during the Christmas week was down only 7 percent from last December's record performance. And business during the New Year's week was up 22 percent from a year ago.

"I'm hoping they have close to the same numbers," city spokesman Myles Rademan said of Sundance. "We have prepared ourselves for as many as last year. We haven't scaled down in any way, shape or form."

Shawn Stinson, director of communications for the Park City Chamber of Commerce, said lodging reservations for Sundance week have been "fairly strong."

"The general consensus is that it may be down slightly but nothing drastic," Stinson said. "I think people will have the opportunity to find lodging. Of course, they won't get it for fifty bucks a night next to the screening room they want, but they never could in the past, anyway."

In the past, festivalgoers could always pick up a copy of a lengthy and thorough guide to all the films showing at Sundance. This year, because of time constraints associated with the earlier festival dates, no brochure was printed. But Guillemet said it will return next year, and she said information about each film is available on the Web at www.sundance.org.

There are no worries that a drop in attendance could cause Sundance officials to look elsewhere. After operating on a year-to-year basis, Sundance is now in the first year of a four-year deal with the city, which could become a seven-year deal if options written into the agreement are picked up.

The agreement specifies more cooperation between Park City and the festival, which city officials hope will lead to even fewer problems with parking, transportation and illegal handbills that have popped up on every stationary surface — and a few moving ones — in the past.

"The average person hopefully will see an event that is better coordinated and better managed," Rademan said. "Sundance is an unusual kind of event. You're talking about a lot of highly talented and individualistic people, and so managing that event is difficult in terms of moving people around and so forth."

Last year was the first year for a new city effort to sweep the town throughout the day and collect renegade fliers. This year, more kiosks will be available for those who wish to post fliers in the legal manner.

The other four festivals approved by the city as of this week are returning veterans — Troma Dance, No Dance, Slamdunk and Digi Dance.

"That can balloon up to 20 or 25 (festivals), depending on if you count the guy driving around in his van showing a movie (as) a festival," Bakaly said.

Since it occurs every year, city officials don't really see Sundance as a test for the upcoming Olympic Games. But the experience it has gained from Sundance over the years will come in handy this February.

"Much of what we have learned about handling the crowds and making them move efficiently, we've applied to" Olympic planning, Rademan said.

In one respect, the Olympics may be a tune-up for next year's Sundance festival. Main Street will be closed to vehicular traffic during the Games and turned into a large pedestrian mall. If that works well, city officials might offer to do the same for future Sundance festivals, if the event's organizers decide that's something they want.

As many as 7,000 people crowd Main Street at once during the film festivals, but officials believe the street, closed off to traffic, can hold as many as 20,000 at once during the Games.

As always, the city's bus system will operate free of charge during the festival and will make a loop connecting each of the Sundance venues. Another bus will haul moviegoers to the Park City Silver Mine for Slamdance.

Due to the unavailability of the Holiday Village Cinemas, the festival has set up public screenings at the Black Box Theater and the Park City Marriott Hotel.

Tickets for Sundance films are available by calling 521-2525 or 1-435-649-4333, visiting the box offices at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City and the Gateway Center in Park City, or via the Internet. Also, more screenings will be held in Salt Lake City this year.

"The program, as usual, is very diversified and very independent in spirit and aesthetics," Guillemet said. "I encourage people, even when it says 'sold out,' to keep coming to the theater because we always have quite a lot of people on the waiting list that get in."

Slamdance tickets can be obtained by calling 1-435-649-7178 or 1-435-655-7455 or by visiting the festival box offices at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St. in Park City, and the Park City Silver Mine, 1.5 miles south of Park City on U-224.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com