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Taylor Swift brings star power to opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City

Families, home, change themes at this year’s Sundance Film Festival

Singer Taylor Swift poses for photos before the premiere of the documentary “Miss Americana” in Park City on Jan. 23, 2020.
Taylor Swift poses for photos before the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the documentary “Miss Americana” at the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

PARK CITY — The appearance of a pop music megastar kicked off the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday with a surge of celebrity.

Taylor Swift poses for photos before the Sundance Film Festival premiere of the documentary “Miss Americana” at the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Taylor Swift, whose documentary “Miss Americana” premiered on opening night at the Eccles Theatre, greeted enthusiastic fans just a few minutes before 9 p.m. People raised their cameras and phones high in the air to get a photo of the 30-year-old pop star, who posed for selfies with a lucky few.

Sundance 2020 brings with it a wide variety of projects and stars, from Glenn Close (“Four Good Days”) to Benedict Cumberbatch (“Ironbark”). “Miss Americana” is among the 244 entries at the festival, accepted from a record-high 15,100 submissions from 142 countries. Others include the Hillary Clinton docuseries “Hillary,” “We Are Freestyle Love Supreme” featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 9/11 drama “Worth” starring Michael Keaton, Viggo Mortensen’s “Falling,” and “The Father” with Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.

But for fans like Amber Thomas, a 22-year-old elementary school teacher in Spanish Fork, the evening was all about Swift.

Thomas arrived at 6:15 p.m. after driving up to Park City once her class was dismissed. She didn’t have a ticket to the documentary’s world premiere, but she chose to go to the festival anyway to catch a glimpse of the singer she’s loved for half of her life — not to mention seen in concert five times.

Thomas was rewarded with the opportunity to take a photo with one of the music world’s biggest stars. As a longtime fan, she has grown to appreciate Swift for much more than her music.

Amber Thomas, 22, right, and her friends take a photo with Taylor Swift prior to the premiere of “Miss Americana” at the Sundance Film Festival.
Provided by Amber Thomas

“I’ve really respected how she handles herself, how she portrays herself in the public eye,” Thomas said. “I feel like everything she has ever done she gets backlash for. Now she’s trying to find her political voice, which makes her happy, but some people are saying, ‘Oh, she should just stay quiet.’ I feel like she handles that so well and that she doesn’t let that affect her, so I’m excited to see that in the documentary.”

Taylor Swift fans wait in line in hopes of seeing Swift when she arrives for the Sundance Film Festival premiere of ”Miss Americana” at the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Taylor Swift fans wait in line in hopes of seeing Swift when she arrives for the Sundance Film Festival premiere of ”Miss Americana” at the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Since announcing its lineup in early December, the festival has kept Swift’s attendance under wraps. But that didn’t keep a long line of fans from forming outside the theater — all hoping to see Swift, even if for only a second.

Emma McDaniel, a 16-year-old high school senior, flew out from Richmond, Virginia, with the hopes of getting a ticket to “Miss Americana” and seeing Swift in person. McDaniel, who was 7 when she first saw Swift in concert, got to the Eccles Theatre at 1 p.m. — eight hours before the premiere — so she could be first in the fan line.

Taylor Swift arrives for the Sundance Film Festival premiere of her Netflix documentary “Miss Americana” at the Eccles Theatre in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enthusiastic fans wearing Swift T-shirts filled in behind McDaniel, and to pass the time, some watched and talked about the official trailer for the documentary that dropped Wednesday. And when dinnertime rolled around and the temperature dropped to the low 30s, McDaniel ordered a few boxes of Domino’s Pizza and shared with her fellow fans.

“Miss Americana,” which covers Swift’s rise to global stardom, the effects of that spotlight and the singer’s gradual journey to becoming an activist, hits Netflix Jan. 31.

Kim Yutani, the festival’s director of programming, said some thematic through-lines in this year’s program include “families, both biological and chosen; the concept of home (and its limitations); and the power of passionate individuals to make real change in the world.”

“What struck me and my team about this year’s program, when we stepped back to consider it as a whole, is how distinctive each work is, and how their individual voices resonate and engage with each other,” Yutani said in video remarks released to the media on Thursday.

“But each work that tackles those concepts does so in a wildly individual way — which is a core tenet of the festival,” Yutani said.

A broader theme of this year’s festival is “imagined futures,” Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam said in her video remarks.

“Of course that’s about what artists do when they create new work,” Putnam said. “But it’s also the idea that art conveys deeper truths and shines a light on varied, human experiences in a way that can open our minds and help us all to be bolder, more connected and more imaginative.”

Putnam said she thinks the Sundance Film Festival “is the perfect place to be in a tumultuous moment in our culture.”

“As we head into an election year, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression more broadly, are facing very serious threats in the U.S. and around the world,” Putnam said. “Increasingly, content is being selected by only a handful of globally dominant entities and served up by algorithms designed to keep you watching.”

This moment demands participation from audiences, artists and citizens, according to Putnam.

“This is a critical time for each of us to question why things are the way they are. To ask whose voices are being marginalized, and why. To notice whose perspectives we aren’t seeing and why not,” Putnam said. “And to recognize that media has worth far beyond its market value, or what it makes at the box office.”

Putnam quoted Miranda, saying he summed it up perfectly when he said, “What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true — the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before.”

“We hope this year’s festival will do just that, thanks in large part to my friend and colleague John Cooper, who is celebrating his last year as festival director,” Putnam said.

Cooper said in his video remarks that while it’s “almost impossible to offer any summation” of his 30 years of involvement with the Sundance Film Festival, if anything, he has learned — and often been reminded by founder Robert Redford — “that change is the only thing that we can count on.”

“We have evolved. We’ve built new theaters, we’ve adopted new technology,” Cooper said. “There’s a revolution in distribution going on, but through it all we’ve supported artists, we’ve opened our doors for millions of new storytellers to come in and be creative.”

Cooper, the festival director, said the community’s character has remained consistent.

“It’s a spirit of openness, of genuine affection for each other and for the work, and — dare I say — independence, and it’s a spirit of generosity,” Cooper said. “These are the qualities that make Sundance different, that make it what it is. And as we continue to change and evolve, let’s always remember to foster the spirit as it carries us forward.”

Last year’s festival was attended by at least 122,000 people, created 3,052 local jobs and generated $182.5 million in economic activity and $18.7 million in state and local tax revenue, according to a Y2 Analytics study.

This year’s festival is set to present feature, narrative, documentary, short, episodic and virtual reality projects in Park City, Salt Lake City and Sundance through Feb. 2.

“It is our great joy and privilege to help deliver these thought-provoking stories out into the world over the next 10 days, and we hope you will join us in continuing the important conversations they spark in the year ahead,” Redford wrote in his 2020 festival catalog letter. “Welcome to Sundance. Buckle in.”