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Sundance is back in-person and more accessible than ever

‘We felt like we couldn’t go back, we really need to go forward,’ Sundance director of programming said. ‘We need to take the incredible learnings of these past two years’

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Eugene Hernandez, incoming Sundance Film Festival director, left, takes a selfie with others during the Sundance Scoop.

Eugene Hernandez, incoming Sundance Film Festival director and head of public programming, from left, takes a selfie with Joana Vicente, CEO of Sundance Institute, Kim Yutani, director of programming for the festival, and John Nein, senior programmer and strategic initiatives director for the festival, during the Sundance Scoop opening-day press conference at the Filmmaker Lodge in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The Sundance Film Festival officially kicked off in Park City with a panel hosting the festival’s top chiefs. Incoming film festival director Eugene Hernandez opened the 10-day event and moderated the panel. 

“The jolt of energy making that drive up the mountain, coming into town,” he said. “You have no idea what to expect. You just know that it’s going to be something magical.” 

Maybe, he says, the building excitement is because the lineup of screenings, premieres, and panels are returning in person after switching gears during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hernandez is celebrating his 30th anniversary attending the festival, while CEO Joana Vicente said she’s been nearly a regular attendee since ’94.

“We are thrilled to welcome you back,” she said, proceeding to thank the festival’s sponsors — Acura, AMC Networks, Chase Sapphire and Adobe — and expressing her gratitude to Robert Redford, who launched the Sundance Institute.

Kim Yutani, the director of programming, and John Nein, the senior programmer and strategic initiatives director, joined Hernandez and Vicente at the Sundance Scoop event to reveal what to expect from Sundance 2023.

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Kim Yutani, director of programming for the Sundance Film Festival, speaks during the Sundance Scoop opening-day press conference at the Filmmaker Lodge in Park City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It’s all about access

The festival has been through many iterations over the past few years as it welcomed more of a hybrid model in hopes of bringing the community together and launching new films — a move that Yutani described as “incredible.”

“We felt like we couldn’t go back, we really need to go forward,” she said. “We need to take the incredible learnings of these past two years.”

The approach has helped reach film lovers and students across the U.S., Yutani said. The international press and industry folk don’t have to spend as much, either.

Attendees can watch a selection of nearly 80 films online. With that said, curating the in-person experience has been a priority because “that magic is not replaceable.”

But that’s not the only change this year — Sundance is leaning more into Salt Lake City, offering screenings across the city, from theaters like the Megaplex at Gateway to the Grand Theater.

According to Yutani, this is an experiment to see if the institute can attract younger and more diverse audiences.

A place of innovation

This year, the programming staff watched as many as 16,000 films to create the perfect itinerary where there is something for everyone. The institute chooses programmers with different backgrounds, perspectives and takes to create a unique schedule.

It’s clear that Sundance works hard to be an international name, considering the 28 different countries represented through the program.

Vicente said that through the rigorous and thoughtful process, they found new and diverse voices that reflect the world we live in, whether that’s a film on Ukraine, like “20 Days in Mariupol,” or climate change, like “Rise.”

“To have those moments of being surprised when going into a screening that you know nothing about ... that’s usually the thing that kind of shakes you and transforms you and makes you think,” said Vicente.

A lot happens on the mountain when no one is looking. “We hear about directors getting their next gig, or people meeting their next collaborators on the shuttle,” said Yutani, noting the serendipity the festival offers.

What movies should you look out for?

The most striking thing about the submissions this year were the number of documentaries, especially in the biographical category, said Yutani.

Attendees can watch two ’80s superstars on the big screen with the films “STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie” and “Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields.”

Peter Nicks returns to the festival with “Steph Curry: Underrated,” while Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson release “Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.”

“What we really loved in this process is just meeting kind of meeting these people and seeing their lives,” said Yutani.

Another film worth keeping on the radar is “Justice,” the newest addition to the schedule. It follows the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and is set to premiere Jan. 20 at 8:30 p.m. MST.