Sundance Weekend One Recap: Celebrity Sightings, Panel Takeaways and More 

The 40th edition of Sundance Film Festival kicked off on January 18th. The beloved cinematic event seemed to be at its full strength following years of pandemic-induced adjustments and cancellations. Last year, over 82,000 people attended the two-week affair and by all estimations that number will be much higher this year. Between high-profile celebrity guests, independent filmmaker meet-ups, fundraising galas, diversity panels, and of course the parties, Park City was practically vibrating with energy. Our film reviewers and nightlife-loving editors soaked up the spirited affairs, here’s our full recap: 

The Films 

Sundance curators ensured this year’s film lineup showcased a range of films, stories and artists from around the world. “While we don’t set out to program the Festival with a defined theme in mind, it became apparent this year that our slate’s biggest strength is how it showcases the vitality of independent storytelling,” said Kim Yutani, Sundance Film Festival Director of Programming. “These titles are inventive and they beautifully represent the kind of groundbreaking work we’ve sought to amplify at Sundance throughout our history.” In his second year as Festival Director, Eugene Hernandez sought out to focus the 2024 festival on connection, specifically connecting to art and to others through art. “Sundance plays such a vital part in starting the year with a new class of filmmakers, and that first impression is so essential,” says Hernandez. So the question becomes, “How do we assure that each film and filmmaker and the teams that come to Utah as part of that experience have the best shot at introducing themselves and their work to our various audiences?” To accomplish that goal, Hernandez introduced a hybrid model that sanctioned all premieres be screened in-person. The new model imbued the first portion of the festival with an air of celebration, as cinephiles, filmmakers, industry leaders and celebrities showing up to christen the first screening of their project. 

As far as the films go, this year’s lineup included an impressive range of movies exploring topics like AI, familial relationships, biographical documentaries and much, much more. More on films we’re excited about, and in-depth reviews from our on-the-ground film buffs, here

Beyond the Screen 

Of course, half the fun of attending Sundance in-person is the chance to interact with industry professionals, network with independent filmmakers and hear from the next generation of cinematic innovators. Returning this year, Sundance’s Beyond Film lineup allowed festival goers an opportunity to listen in on panels and conversations with their favorite filmmakers. 

Audible’s Cinema Cafe

Throughout the weekend, Audible’s Cinema Cafe hosted industry icons and inspiring individuals who spoke on finding success in storytelling. On Friday, January 19th, guests Jodie Foster, Riley Keough, Pedro Pascal, Normani, Kieran Culkin, Jessie Eisenberg and Jay Ellis stopped by the Variety Interview studio. Highlights include Eisenberg and Culkin discussing playing cousins in their new film A Real Pain, and Pascal’s thoughts on immersing himself in the city of Oakland for his role in the film Freaky Tales

Saturday’s iteration of Cinema Cafe hosted Saorse Ronan, who spoke on the amount of improv that took place in the ner film The Outrun. Also making an appearance, Kerry Washington touched on her love of blending mediums and how finding ways to convey stories helps make audiences better content consumers. And the lovely June Squibb retold her approach to her vocal performance in her latest film Thelma. 

Audible also hosted two ‘Variety x Audible Cocktails and Conversations” panels which brought together award-winning individuals to discuss the importance of storytelling. On Friday, award-winning creator behind titles such as “Black-ish”, “Girls Trip” and #blackAF,” Kenya Barris spoke with Audible’s Chief Content Officer Rachel Ghiazza about creative opportunities in audio media. On working with Audible for her latest project DJ Drama’s Gangsta Grillz Podcast, Barris said “Audible wanted to do things that were far beyond anyone else [in audio]. Immersive, really sort of 360-degree sonic things that make you feel something different than a normal podcast. It didn’t feel flat, and it felt like, as a storyteller, the kind of thing I want to do.”  

Sunday’s panel, “Breaking Down Genres” invited “Rob Peace” director, writer and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Parish” EP and star Giancarlo Esposito, “Winner” director, writer and producer Susanna Fogel, Audible Head of Creative Development, North America Kate Navin and author, poet, comedian & public speaker Alok Vaid-Menon spoke with Variety’s Angelique Jackson about their experiences defying expectations and challenging genre norms for greater expression and innovation. Speaking on how storytelling breaks down barriers, Esposito said: “We’ve come to a place now where we have the opportunity to really express ourselves as who we really are, and let go of all of the things that prevent us from showing each other our authentic selves.”

ACURA House of Energy

A presenting sponsor at this year’s festival, ACURA hosted four-days of engaged programming celebrating diverse and underrepresented voices. Hosted panel Gold House invited business leaders and creatives like Kyle Bowser, Christine Yi, Nina Yang Bongiovi and others to explore how multicultural filmmakers navigate the business side of filmmaking. ACURA also hosted the ASCAP Music Cafe, which featured live music and discussions with composer Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe, Bretty Story, Stephan Maing, and more. Live performances included Dandy Warhols, Brian Jonestown Massacre, and DIG!XX. 

Chase Sapphire 

By far the most happening spot to be at this year was the Chase Sapphire lounge, where a star-studded lineup of celebs attended cast parties and panels. Sightings included Pedro Pascal, Too $hort, Jack Champion and more from the cast of Freaky Tales. On Friday, Chase Sapphire presented the panel for The Outrun where writer Amy Liptrot, Director Nora Fingscheidt and actress Saoirse Ronan celebrated their upcoming film. And closing out the weekend, the Reserve After Hours party saw celebs like Dylan Mulvaney, Chris Meloni and Alicia Silverstone dancing far into the night. 

My Personal Highlights and Takeaways 

In my second year attending Sundance, I’ll pride myself on my slightly enhanced ability to navigate the barrage of pop-ups, shuttle lines and midnight screenings. Some of the events I attended felt more like crashing an exclusive work party, or getting a glimpse into a smoke-filled backroom, and others I was genuinely excited about the work being done by independent industry creatives. Mostly, I felt invigorated by this community of movers and shakers. Here’s my top tips and takeaways: 

  • The shuttle will take a while. Yes, it’s still worth it. 
  • You’re going to overhear lots of out-of-towner critique of Utah. Some of it is valid. 
  • Get to your premiere EARLY. I mean like, an hour and a half early. 
  • Talk with people! Almost everyone at Sundance has a story to share, so do you. 
  • If you see people queuing in front of a shuttered door frame, there’s an exclusive party about to go down, get in line and see what comes of it. 
  • Be courteous and appreciative of Park City service workers, they are the real stars of the show and can make or break your experience. 

The Celebrities 

Okay, okay. Here’s a bunch of celebs that visited the Beehive State this year. I know that’s what you’re really here for anyway. 

Chase Sapphire Lounge. Photo credit Joshua Lawton

IMDB Portrait Studio. Photo credit Getty Images for IMBD

Chase Sapphire Lounge and Panels. Photo credit Jack Dempsey

ACURA. Photo credit George Pimentel, Michael Hurcomb, Marc Sagliocco, Stephen Lovekin and Sundance Org.

The Sundance Film Festival continues through January 28! Check Sundance’s website for the full schedule of Beyond Film events and screenings.

Avrey Evans
Avrey Evans
Avrey Evans is the Digital and the Nightlife Editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has been writing for city publications for six years and enjoys covering the faces and places of our salty city, especially when a boozy libation is concerned.

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