After 10 days filled with the typical flurry of celebrities, film elites and movie connoisseurs, the 2024 Sundance Film Festival is coming to a close. And due to some recent comments from Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente, its future is the subject of much speculation.

Sundance, which was founded in part by actor Robert Redford, has been hosted by Park City for decades. In a recent live taping of “The Town” podcast, Vicente said, “Park City is part of Sundance. It’s a beautiful location. It’s kind of remote. We get immersed into the festival.” 

But she added there are “challenges” affecting negotiations about Park City’s future role in the festival.

“I mean, accessibility is a challenge. Cost is a challenge. ... But we love being here. ... We want to make this work,” Vicente said, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Her remarks fueled speculation that Sundance could be on the hunt for a new home, prompting headlines like “Sundance CEO Joana Vicente Hints Festival Could Move From Park City: ‘Cost Is a Challenge’” from The Wrap and “Could Sundance be leaving Park City?” from the Park Record.

Here’s a look at how Park City and Sundance leaders responded to the news cycle and what it would mean for Utah if the festival really left.

The history of the Sundance Film Festival

Redford bought “the land now known as Sundance” in 1969, per Sundance Mountain Resort. At the time, Redford was drawn to the area as a potential creative community as well as “a landmark resort,” according to KSL.

“Sundance is an arts community, a recreational community, a community of people who appreciate the beauty of nature and feel the responsibility to preserve it,” Redford said, according to Sundance Mountain Resort.

Originally called the Utah/United States Film Festival, the first Sundance Film Festival launched in Salt Lake City in 1978, according to Sundance Guide. The festival featured multiple classics, like “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Midnight Cowboy.”

By all accounts, the event was a success. Lines wrapped around the block. “High-profile” filmmakers attended.

At the time, major films and franchises like “The Empire Strikes Back” were dominating theaters. Redford and Sundance’s Feature Film Program founding director Michelle Satter worried that Hollywood just didn’t value original storytelling anymore.

“These films were coming through studios that created a real focus on mainstream storytelling,” Satter told IndieWire in 2023. “For Redford, it was about bringing artists together in a safe place for experimentation, pushing boundaries, and really supporting the humanity of the filmmaking process.” 

In June 1981, Satter “organized a three-day producers weekend event,” providing the template for what would eventually be Sundance’s filmmaking lab. Redford officially founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, which “assumed creative and administrative control of the U.S. Film Festival” in 1985, according to Sundance Institute.

That year, 86 films were screened. In 2023, the Sundance Film Festival screened 178 films.

40th edition of Sundance looks to the future of filmmaking — while honoring the past
We saw some of the most anticipated films of the year at Sundance. Here’s what we thought

What does Sundance look like today?

In 2024, the festival program boasted what felt like an overabundance of big names — including Pedro Pascal and recent Emmy-winners Kieran Culkin and Steven Yeun — and also had a record number of submissions: over 17,000 as Kim Yutani, Sundance director of programming, revealed at the Sundance opening press conference.

The surge in submissions led to an exciting slate at the festival this year. But the buzz around this year’s gathering further complicated the already complex logistics of getting to, staying in and leaving Park City.

It’s not a terrible drive from Salt Lake City to Park City for most of the year. But during Sundance, when film elites flock to Park City en masse, the drive is often reduced to a crawl. Parking is frustratingly sparse and chaotic. Sidewalks are icy and slushy.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, there have been whispers of Sundance moving from Park City for a while, in part because of locals’ persistent complaints about how the festival affects their town.

Last year, the Park City Police Department addressed multiple traffic issues, including “sketchy driving moves” and “very disorganized” traffic. Some said that it was the “worse Sundance that has been organized,” according to The Park Record.

Per The Hollywood Reporter, “Locals have long complained about the stress it brings to the small town, with a massive influx of people crushing the city’s local business and public transport every January.”

But others in Park City and across the state are grateful for the business — and spotlight — that the festival brings with it. In the podcast interview, Vicente said that she believes Utah, as a whole, is supportive of Sundance.

How would it impact Park City if Sundance left?

The Sundance Film Festival attracts thousands of out-of-state visitors to Utah every year, generating millions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs for Utahns.

“Sundance is etched into the fabric of our identity. It helped put Park City on the map — now not only as a renowned ski destination — but as a renowned arts and cultural destination,” Jennifer Wesselhoff, the president and CEO of Park City Chamber of Commerce, said during a press conference on Thursday.

“As the festival grew, our town grew. And as the town grew, the festival grew. The relationship was — and continues to be — symbiotic.”

Four decades into the festival, the Sundance Film Festival continues to generate heavy financial impact on Park City — and Utah as a whole.

“For the Chamber of Commerce, this event checked a lot of boxes — and it still does,” Wesselhoff explained. “Today, more than 100,000 people attend the event annually — approximately 40% from out of state. These out-of-state visitors spend $135 million in Utah during the festival.”

According to 2023 study by the Sundance Institute, “out-of-state visitors spent an estimated $97 million in Utah during the festival” and contributed “$118.3 million in Utah gross domestic product” that year.

Additionally, the event created “1,608 jobs for Utah residents” and “$12.8 million in state and local tax revenue.”

If Sundance does leave Utah, 2021 might be an indication of how it’d impact Park City. When the festival went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many local businesses took a hit.

Chef Adolph Imboden, of the popular restaurant Adolph’s, told Variety in 2021 that he anticipated “a 40% hit with the absence of an in-person festival.”

“It’s devastating to all of us,” Imboden said at the time. “Sundance is huge for Park City. I sure hope it all returns and we will still be here.”

Despite rumors, Sundance directors express appreciation for Park City

Over 40 years, Park City and Sundance have forged a deep-rooted partnership.

Representatives from both the Sundance Institute and the Park City Chamber of Commerce expressed gratitude for the “world renowned” festival — and for their collaboration — during Thursday’s press conference, which organizers encouraged the Deseret News to attend after a reporter asked the chamber about Vicente’s podcast interview.

Speakers did not directly address the rumored split. Instead, they focused on how great 40 years of partnership has been for both Park City and the Sundance Institute.

“I want to say today that I have so much appreciation for the longstanding partnership between the Sundance Institute and Park City,” Mayor of Park City Nann Worel said.

“It’s a bond that is strong, with deep roots and has been built on mutual trust and respect. We’re proud of the world renowned event that is safe, welcoming and enlightening. Strength in partnerships is a focus of mine as Mayor and we have no stronger partner than Sundance.”

Both Eugene Hernandez, the Sundance Film Festival director and head of public programming, and Vicente acknowledged the community in Park City for fostering the event.

“Community was such a critical part of Robert Redford’s vision when he created the festival four decades ago,” said Vicente. “He found the beginnings of that community here in Park City and community is not something you build overnight.”

Hernandez thanked Park City for decades of being “so accommodating” and “so supportive” in hosting the festival.

“Park City and this community are so an indelible part of the history of this festival and it’s been so great to have such a special experience,” Hernandez said. “I know we talk about the way things were, but the way things are is also just so beautiful and warm and embracing.”