It’s actually happening this time. Seriously. The Sundance Film Festival is returning for 2023 as an in-person event after two years of entirely virtual screenings. From January 19-29, the annual spectacle will retake its historic place in Park City, inundating the community with a reflected, star-studded glow that has been notably absent since January 2020. Even with audiences returning to theaters this year, Sundance is hybridizing the festival and making programming available virtually to ticket holders. It’s a new world for event logistics and expectations, and the cultural winds are shifting as swiftly as ever over the independent entertainment landscape. The Sundance Film Festival needs to find its place in the new era.
The resurgent pandemic scuttled plans for Sundance’s return the past couple of years, but the lessons learned may have forever altered the way we fest. Sundance reported during the pandemic three times as many people viewed films online during the 2021 virtual edition—600,000 audience views—as saw them during the 2020 physical edition. The figure represents a welcome democratization of the independent film viewing experience, as in recent years the festival had become ever-more exclusive. The fame-adjacent, stargazing, an influencer-obsessed culture that has sullied so many cultural pillars—we see you Coachella and Burning Man—lent the purportedly inclusive values of independent film a distinctly insular feel. Needless to say, enjoying the art on its own terms away from the spectacle had its merits.
So, the festival can be experienced in whatever context one prefers, amid the live spectacle or from home, refocusing an emphasis on the programming. Here too, Sundance must chart a new direction as to what stories they are trying to tell and which voices they want to amplify. Part of that direction includes the pausing of this year’s New Frontier programming, which has typically served as an incubator for more experimental forms of art and has recently incorporated virtual reality projects. Further at stake is Sundance’s reputation as a tastemaker, following a debacle in 2022 surrounding the film, Jihadi Rehab.
The documentary made by a white woman, Meg Smaker, about four Muslim men—accused terrorists and former Guantanamo detainees who were never charged—incarcerated in a Saudi Arabian rehabilitation facility, was the source of intense debate regarding representation, consent and who has a license to tell which stories. After intense criticism—some very valid, some not in good faith—Sundance issued an apology that was viewed by some as too late and by others as reactionary. South by Southwest subsequently rescinded its own invitation to the film, showing just how much influence Sundance wields in the zeitgeist.
2023 is a year of reinvention for Sundance. The crowds are back and with renewed scrutiny of what the festival aims to be. How this year’s festival plays out will set the tone for how the institution will impact the culture surrounding independent film for years to come.
How to Attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
In-person and online ticket packages can be purchased on the Sundance website. Numerous In-person festival packages are available with prices ranging from $200-$750, and single film tickets will be on sale starting January 12 for $25 each. Online festival tickets, $20 per film or $300 for the Festival Package are also available. festival.sundance.org