Will Sundance Film Festival Leave Park City?

“No Welfare for Sundance + Kimball,” read the anonymously authored sticky note. The note contained one of many such nuanced takes from a late fall event designed to gather public input regarding Park City’s possible future arts and culture district in Bonanza Park. Setting aside the ludicrous, anonymous nature of the feedback—which channels some of the most vocal characters of an internet comment section—the event’s very existence reflected a contemplative mood surrounding what was once a broadly supported development concept. Local sentiment is seemingly less enamored with the world of art and entertainment. Is the feeling mutual?

If a faction of fed-up residents were contemplating ousting Sundance, the fabulously impactful annual film festival, some rumors suggest they may not get the chance. Word on the street is Sundance has been considering an exit from Park City, possibly leading to a situation of “You can’t break up with me because I’m breaking up with you!”   

Reporting from Deadline in July 2023 indicated festival organizers were fielding RFPs from numerous cities including Santa Fe, New Mexico and Bentonville, Arkansas. Sundance reps replied at the time that the requests for proposals were related only to Sundance Labs, the year-round programs Sundance Institute runs to develop upcoming filmmakers. One of the labs is held at Utah’s Sundance Resort, which is undergoing extensive construction, necessitating the need for an alternative location. 

Sundance Film Festival

The enticing morsel of Hollywood gossip got a boost a few months later when Sundance Film Festival leadership requested an extension on the deadline to renew its agreement with Park City to hold the festival in town beyond 2026, when the current agreement expires. The requested seven-month extension (from March 1 to Oct. 1, 2024) indicated Sundance is conducting a broad review of the festival’s future. In a letter to Mayor Nana Worel, Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente pointed to new executive leadership, several years of declining revenue and “many uncertainties” that make a “new vision” for the partnership essential. 

Is Sundance really asking to see other people? Are they merely trying to find out if Park City is serious about their relationship? Is this strained metaphor an inaccurate lens through which to view a standard negotiating tactic relating to an agreement that automatically renews in 2027 without a two-year written notice by either party? It’s hard to say.

Sundance Film Festival
Despite unconfirmed rumors of Sundance leaving Utah, the festival will be back at venues in Park City and Salt Lake City, like the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Photo credit Sundance Film Festival

Those sticky notes referenced in the introduction weren’t about the Sundance Film Festival itself but the Sundance Institute’s presence as an anchor tenant in the planned arts and culture district. In 2017 when the district was conceived, three parties—City Hall officials, Sundance Institute representatives and Kimball Art Center leadership—envisioned a vibrantly reimagined section of town that would lessen the community’s reliance on outdoor tourism while serving as a long-term hub of artistic cultivation. 

The intervening years, in no small part due to the pandemic, upended best laid plans. Locals have bristled as the city’s estimated portion of the bill, which has exceeded $90 million. Vicente’s letter made no mention of Sundance Institute moving to Summit County. The Kimball Art Center continues to operate in its “temporary” digs on Kearns Blvd. with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the lots where businesses in Prospector were razed to make way for the arts and culture district remain vacant.  Relationships are hard. Rumors are swirling. 

“Good riddance,” some residents would no doubt say, at least, anonymously, on sticky notes. If it ever comes time to cut ties with the festival and organization that has become synonymous with Park City, the community will have to reckon with whether the grass is really greener. Sometimes you don’t realize what you have until it’s gone. 

It’ll Be ‘Festival As Usual’ This Year

Park City has hosted the Sundance Film Festival since 1981, when it was still known as the U.S. Film Festival. In its 40th festival year, Sundance in Park City and Salt Lake City has hosted, thousands of films, millions of attendees and countless gossiped-about celebrity sightings. (I’ve talked to both Danny Glover and pre-ayahuasca-enthused Aaron Rodgers.) If you’re reading this between the dates of Jan. 19-29, 2024, get out to Main Street and revel in the madness. Who knows how many years it’ll still be a possibility. 

Tony Gill
Tony Gillhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Tony Gill is the outdoor and Park City editor for Salt Lake Magazine and previously toiled as editor-in-chief of Telemark Skier Magazine. Most of his time ignoring emails is spent aboard an under-geared single-speed on the trails above his home.

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