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Sundance '17 sets records for attendance, economic impact

SALT LAKE CITY — Even though streaming services like Amazon and Netflix appear to be supplanting movie studios as the stars of writing big checks for the hottest movies at Utah's annual Sundance Film Festival, the in-person theater audiences for this year's edition — and their impact on the state's coffers — are easily the largest on record.

A just released report by Y2 Analytics pegs Sundance's 2017 attendance at more than 71,000 for the two-week event, with those movie fans generating $151.5 million in total economic benefit to the state.

"It is apparent that the Sundance Film Festival continues to have an expanding impact on Utah's vibrant and diverse economy,” Gov. Gary Herbert said. “In addition to the obvious economic benefits, our ongoing collaboration with Sundance Institute highlights the exceptional cultural, recreational, tourism and business opportunities available here in Utah."

While this year's festival performance numbers outstrip last year's attendance of 46,660 and economic impacts of $143 million, Y2 Analytics founding partner Quin Monson said an updated approach to gathering data likely helped capture information that may have been missed in previous analyses.

"Where things really differed (from previous reports) is we were able to estimate the total attendance with more precision," Monson said. "And we were able to capture additional spending data from attendees that combined helped to create an overall economic assessment."

Monson and his team brought in some locally developed high-tech tools that he said helped dial in the game of guessing crowd sizes at the numerous Sundance events.

Salt Lake City's Blyncsy has developed a system for wireless capture of unique identifiers associated with anything that can connect to a wireless network (smartphones, laptops, tablets, fitness devices, etc.) allowing an end user to view that data in real time.

Blyncsy sensors were set up in various venues associated with Sundance activities that enabled Y2 to capture and count the number of people at any particular event, essentially tracking them by their mobile devices.

"The festival organizers know how many tickets go out, but they don't know how many people actually show up to screenings," Monson said. "This tool helped us get better attendance numbers by anonymously keeping track of unique cellphone radio signals."

Y2 also made an effort to collect information from Sundance passholders and VIPs whose economic activities had been mostly missed in previous assessment efforts. This group represents about 10 percent of the audience and tend to be higher spenders than the ticketed attendees, Monson said.

"This is a significant portion of the audience whose spending is higher than average," he said. "Counting that group … helped us get to a more accurate estimate."

Betsy Wallace, Sundance Institute chief financial officer and managing director, said Y2's approach helped confirm what organizers had been sensing for some time — that attendance numbers, which had been hovering in the mid-40,000s for the past few years, were higher than previous reporting had been able to capture.

"We always felt that the 46,000 number was probably on the low side," Wallace said. "But we didn't have the tools and technology to evaluate that. Y2 provided that for us and spent a lot of time with revalidating the numbers."

Other data points from this year's event are fairly similar to past years. A little more than half the attendees were from outside Utah, with over 700 international visitors from 18 countries among them. The 2017 festival generated $14 million in state and local tax, and supported more than 2,700 jobs.

Monson also noted that the Sundance event has cachet that extends far beyond measurable data like attendance and spending.

"The impact this festival has on the state of Utah is significant and impressive," he said. "It's something that members of our public and policymakers should take note of as Sundance brings a lot of positive attention, along with its sizeable economic impacts."

Val Hale, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, concurred with Monson that Sundance creates positive energy for Utah well outside the festival's footprint of Park City, Salt Lake City and Ogden.

“Each year, the Sundance Film Festival puts an international spotlight on Utah’s beautiful landscapes, creative culture, innovative industries and quality of life," Hale said. "The statewide impact of the Sundance Institute extends far beyond the film festival to year-round activities that foster new artists in film, theater and new media.

"As people travel to our great state to enjoy the festival, they recognize that Utah is not only a great place to visit, but to also live, work and play. We applaud the Sundance Institute for their continued growth and success,” he said.

The Utah Legislature approved $500,000 for the Sundance Institute in 2017, matching the level of funding granted the previous year.