Destry Pollard is no stranger to moving people. He’s been driving buses in Park City for more than 25 years. In that time, he’s amassed a novel’s worth of colorful stories about hauling people around town during the Sundance Film Festival (January 21–31, sundance.org). “It’s a great time. I do love the people. Except the ones who think they know my bus routes better than I do,” he laughs. “I recommend they listen to me and not their Google apps.”
Maybe you’ve never heard the term “front loaded,” but Pollard has. It’s the event-industry lingo often used to describe the ebb and flow of the Sundance Film Festival. Meaning, most of the hubbub is packed into the first five days of the 10-day event. More than 60 buses traverse Park City’s small radius on any given day of the festival, but Pollard says the first weekend has always been the busiest. “The mood is definitely electric and vibrant those first few days, with a lot of people coming up from Salt Lake to stargaze,” he says.
While there once may have been some truth to a front-loaded Sundance, the world-famous film festival is now better described as having two distinct personalities: one occupying the first half and a distinctly different persona emerging in the second.
The first five days of Sundance is all glitz and glam. Main Street teems with celebrity stalkers and ticket holders in equal measure, and industry-fueled parties rock venues all over Park City proper from late afternoon through the wee hours of the morning. The calmer second half comes across as more introspective, inspirational, and, frankly, more intelligent. The hangers-on go back to New York and LA, and the focus settles squarely on film. Do film attendee numbers go down after Tuesday? Never. But the energy shift is palpable to anyone who has experienced an entire Sundance.
Park City’s restaurants know all about the differences between the first and second half of the festival and how crowds seem to shift. “I would recommend coming to the second half of the festival for people who aren’t Nicole Kidman,” jokes Mary Potts, the director of operations for Bill White Enterprises, a local restaurant group with three Main Street venues. Potts says their restaurants start getting reservation requests in June for the first weekend of the festival. “We will host more than 50 private events, most of which are requested for the first five days,” she adds.
Though the beginning of Sundance can feel like a celebrity freight train roaring through town, complete with a mob of onlookers flooding Historic Main Street, there is so much more to this event than catching a glimpse of a star or getting turned away from a private party. More than 200 films are screened throughout the festival’s 10-day run, including daily premieres. According to Sarah Pearce, managing director of the Sundance Institute, the impression that festival activities wane after Monday is simply not true. “In fact, over the years, the closing-night films have often been some of the most impactful,” Pearce says.
Those who choose the second half over the first can count on plenty of enticing programming options and film premieres in an atmosphere less about celebrity craziness and more about why the festival was founded in the first place: independent film. “The festival is full of discovery, and there is always something new to explore,” explains Pearce. “In addition to film screenings, audiences can experience engaging dialogue at our Cinema Café panels, listen to the sounds of the festival at Music Café, and interact with the future of storytelling at New Frontier.”
If that’s not alluring enough, Potts has another carrot to dangle for filmgoers dining out after the Tuesday of the festival: “Each year our pricing shifts after the first part of the festival, and our menu options tend to expand,” she shares. “Reservations are also much more attainable.”
Noted. We’ll just call that a well-earned Sundance dessert.