After a two-year hiatus from an in-person Sundance Film Festival, returning to Park City to partake in the winter entertainment festival I had been attending since 2005 was an endeavor I approached with both excitement and trepidation. While significant deals and buzzed premieres of all kinds are had on the international festival circuit year-round, there has always been a distinct fervor and energy that came along with Sundance, serving as a kick-off to a new season and setting the stage for the tidal shifts of the ever-changing distribution landscape. Sundance 2023 saw a return to the energy of festival years past with a new virtual layer that more closely mirrors how the pandemic forever affected the industry’s distribution model.
The hybrid nature of this year’s Sundance may have helped alleviate the participation barrier to entry that continues to escalate as bigger budgets have been ushered into the once approachable festival. But while industry hopefuls may have had a newfound opportunity to participate in the festival, this came alongside partially full theaters and entertainment executives opting to avoid the Main Street traffic and screen some of the most buzzed-about titles from the comfort of their hotel rooms. Although we saw some big deals made on films that may have been perceived to be more commercially viable, many of the more experimental and provocative titles Sundance has become known for left the festival still in distribution negotiations, with the virtual nature taking away some of the urgency that drove the around-the-clock bidding wars that were previously mainstays of the festival.
As some executives opted to stay on the outskirts of the Sundance experience this year, there was a very deliberate step forward in addressing the numerous social issues that have been at the forefront of conversation and debate since the last in-person event in 2020. Organizations like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood had a presence at the festival, holding dynamic panel discussions that took a deep look into how entertainment and storytelling can serve as a mechanism for timely causes that can be converted into social activism and real change.
Attendance may have not been as high as in previous years, but there was still palpable new energy in the air. While there were noticeable downturns in celebrity attendance and large-scale parties, dynamic events continued alongside the main festival. Historically, my own experience at Sundance has been as the president and CEO of Alkemy X, but this year I also took on the role of organizing the Mid-Winter Conference for the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), leading 70 non-industry executives to their first Sundance experience--this is a prime example of how the allure, intrigue and importance of the Sundance Film Festival has continued to evolve over the years. Our group brought a fresh perspective on the complexities of financial models for deal-making at Sundance, bringing their collective experiences and backgrounds across a wide spectrum of industries to add objectivity and fresh energy to a projection of the future of the space. Brand Storytelling, another parallel event, returned for its seventh year and examined the continued convergence of entertainment and brand storytelling.
Sundance has always served as a source of creative inspiration for the entertainment industry. While the nature of how audiences consume media continues to shift, the hunger for fresh content has only increased. It is up to us to build a path to embrace these changes and tell the stories that they want to hear.