The Sundance Film Festival kicks off Thursday, and for the first time, you can partake in the world’s premier independent film fest — and one of the best places to check out top virtual reality experiments — without stepping outside your front door.
For decades, Sundance has stuffed stars, filmmakers and movie fanatics into the snowy hamlet of Park City, Utah, transforming the quaint ski resort town into a teeming hub for film lovers every January. With bumper-to-bumper traffic on its picturesque Main Street, parties packed into houses at the foot of mountains enveloped in white, and dozens upon dozens of movie screenings every day, Park City always sheltered Sundance’s frenzy like a snow globe, complete with flurries that temporarily hushed all the bustle.
While the charm of Park City made Sundance unique, it could add challenges to attending. Most premier film festivals are in major metropolitan areas, but traveling to Sundance often meant a ticket to Salt Lake City and then another hour or so drive into the mountains. As a resort town, Park City is equipped with more hotel rooms, condos and Airbnbs than you’d find in other villages its size. But during Sundance, the supply of places to stay is always way short of demand, driving up prices to eye-popping levels.
This year, though, thehas forced Sundance to transform into a (mostly) remote affair. That’s making it accessible to a wider swath of people than ever before.
Almost the entirety of the fest is online this year for anyone in the US to enjoy, and parts of the fest are accessible no matter where you live in the world. In the US, film premieres can stream straight to your TV. You can join director Q&As afterward from your couch and drop into post-premiere parties from your laptop. New virtual environments re-create the experience of festival mingling, whether joining a crowded cinema to watch a film on the big screen or exploring a gallery-like space for the New Frontier program — the fest’s tech-heavy branch focused on cutting-edge storytelling. (Did we mention those virtual spaces are all floating in orbit above the Earth’s surface near the International Space Station?)
Sundance is always a major endeavor to figure out each year, even for people who know how it ticks. This year brings added challenges of learning how to “attend” the festival too. But armed with some tips about movies, projects and talks that tech lovers will want on their radar, you can figure out how to fest to suit your needs. For New Frontier, you’ll need a $25 Explorer Pass. For films, you need to get individual tickets (for movies that aren’t already sold out.)
New Frontier helped put virtual reality on Hollywood’s map. In Park City, the New Frontier installations are some of the most exciting places to visit — and some of the trickiest if you want to see everything. On top of the timed tickets needed for entry to the New Frontier venues, savvy fest-goers know to strategize in advance with a triage of their top projects. so they can rush to get a spot on the list before they’re booked. It’s like an artsier Black Friday sale, only people are racing to try crazy VR experiments rather than score a big-screen TV.
All of that is out the window this year. New Frontier’s projects are available on demand throughout the entire run of the festival, with the exception of a few that involve an element of live performance, which are available on demand at specific times.
And you don’t need a VR setup to experience them all, either. Roughly half the projects need only a computer or a phone to check out. They include:
- Fortune – A comedic animated documentary of sorts about the world’s greatest counterfeiter, Fortune taps into the augmented-reality abilities of your iPhone or Android phone, as well as Snapchat filters.
- Beyond the Breakdown – A browser-based experience where people can world-build for their ideal vision of 2050, through a conversation augmented by an artificial intelligence and a human team to keep a live conversation performance going.
- Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran – A two-device experience for your phone and computer, this is like a live theater piece mixed with a time capsule, about ultrarich Iranian kids and conspicuous consumption.
- Secret Garden – A browser experience like a three-dimensional gallery, Secret Garden broadcasts images from six women from different time periods, telling narratives that overlap each other as you wander.
- Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler – A interactive browser-based work transforms your laptop into a primordial pool of artists, where you can dip into portals to see what they’re creating.
- Weirdo Night – Performance artist Dynasty Handbag’s monthly live show in Los Angeles shut down when the pandemic hit, but she decided to do one more revue to an audience of nobody and filmed it.
- 7 Sounds – An aural work that takes you through seven audio recordings “into a meditation on the power of sound to bend time, cross borders, and profoundly shape our perception.”
Virtual reality projects come in two flavors: Those that you can watch with untethered headsets like an Oculus Quest 1 or 2, and those that require a higher-octane headset tethered to a desktop.
VR works that don’t require a desktop rig include:
- Namoo – A piece supported by well-known immersive studio Baobab, Namoo explores the stages of life by following the growth of a tree that sprouts memories from its branches.
- 4 Feet High VR – A companion to a one of the indie series titles that you can also watch with the same pass that unlocks New Frontier, 4 Feet High VR features 360-degree episodes about a teen’s coming-of-age at a new high school, as she navigates identity and sexuality as a person in a wheelchair.
- Tinker – A mix of VR with live theater performance, in which you experience the story — of growing up with a grandfather played by a live actor — with a number of other participants.
And projects needing a desktop-tethered VR headset include:
- The Changing Same: Episode 1 – A series of works about racial terror, using virtual time travel and magical realism to create a pilgrimage from a period of slavery to post-racial utopia.
- Nightsss – An “ASMR erotic poem,” according to New Frontier’s curator, Nightsss is an experience without an narrative meant to stimulate your senses through ASMR and the haptic feedback of the controllers.
- Prison X – Chapter One: The Devil and the Sun – A mythical take on the experience of a Bolivian prison filled with Andean deities.
- To Miss the Ending – A project about the value of memories, To Miss the Ending fast-forwards to a future when we upload our memories into an AI and reconnect with loved ones inside the network.
Sundance in Space
New Frontier is also the main attraction in the virtual environment Sundance built for this year’s online festival — the ones floating above the Earth in space near the ISS. But organizers also built this warren of virtual spaces to serve other festival purposes too, like mingling and parties.
Based on WebXR, you can access the virtual spaces through a simple Web browser, ideally Google’s Chrome. But it’s also accessible with virtual reality headsets for a much more immersive feel. Your avatar is simple floating geometry, topped with a circle that features your uploaded picture.
The virtual environments include a space garden entryway to get oriented, and then three main community spaces: Film Party, Cinema House and the New Frontier Gallery. The space garden is a single-user space where you can set up your avatar and get accustomed to the mechanics of moving around in this virtual world.
The Film Party is where you’ll go for those post-premiere virtual parties. This is also the only space that transforms that photo circle on your avatar into a live webcam feed. Think of it like a Zoom bar on sterioids. With spatialized audio, you can hear people more clearly as you approach them.
Cinema House is the environment’s only space that’s exclusive for people using VR headsets. It re-creates the concept of watching a movie communally in a theater. Attendees can hang out there and socialize for 10 minutes before communication turns off during the film as you watch together on a virtual big screen. After the movie, each participant is transported to that post-movie film party. It’ll screen such films as Users, a film about the “ruthless locomotion of technology,” and a special selection of international shorts from the festival lineup.
Finally, the most freeform community space is the New Frontier Gallery, which is like walking around an interstellar art exhibit. If you walk over to certain spots along the edge, you have a picture-perfect view of the ISS sailing over the planet. This is where you can jump into all the New Frontier projects.
Tucked inside the New Frontier Gallery is a gateway to a virtual social experiment, more of an unstructured playground called do not play that puts live video chats inside interfaces that are much more fun than your standard Zoom gallery. Instead of faces in Brady Bunch-intro squares, you and friends can webcam chat in a simulated Amsterdam bar or a private karaoke parlor.
Sundance films with a tech bent
Sundance’s slate of films, which kicks off with Thursday’s premieres in the weeklong festival, are all accessible through the fest’s site and can be streamed to smart TVs, too.
Many films are sold out. But not all hope is lost — you can always check back on the title you’re interested in, since more tickets may become available closer to the fest. And every film has two opportunities to for viewing: its premiere, when you have a three-hour window to start the movie, and a full day’s worth of availability two days after that.
Films with a tech or science bent that still have tickets available include:
- A Glitch in the Matrix – A “documentary examining simulation theory — the idea that this world we live in might not be entirely real. Simulation theory is as old as Plato’s Republic and as current as Elon Musk’s Twitter feed. A Glitch in the Matrix traces the idea’s genesis over the years.”
- All Light, Everywhere – A documentary about the “surprising connections among technology, weapons, and mechanics of motion.”
- Users – A film that “marvels at and fears for a world in which a child is not only at risk from a warming Earth but comes to trust a perfectly constructed artificial caretaker over his own biological mother.”
- Bring Your Own Brigade – A documentary about out-of-control wildfires, “our out-of-balance relationship with nature and…what it will take to restore this delicate equilibrium.”
- The Pink Cloud – Two strangers are forced to seek shelter together after a deadly cloud mysteriously takes over their city and the planet settles into an extended quarantine. They are forced to come to terms with an accelerated timeline for their relationship.
- R#J – A retelling of Romeo and Juliet performed entirely through social media and smartphone screens.
- Son of Monarchs – With a Mexican scientist living in New York as its protagonist, this film explores the man’s tragic family history as his own travels mimic the migrations of the monarch butterflies he studies and loves.
- Searchers – “Is there anything worse than dating in New York City? Yes. It’s called dating in New York City during a pandemic — but at least in this film, you only have to watch others do it.”
If you want to try your luck snagging tickets later to sold-out films, these are likely to appeal to your inner geek:
- In the Same Breath – A documentary about the origin and spread of COVID-19, putting the trauma of health care workers and those in mourning alongside an indictment of Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump.
- Prisoners of the Ghostland – A “delirious mash-up of Western, samurai, and postapocalyptic” thriller starring Nicolas Cage as a bank robber.
- In the Earth – A horror thriller involving a deadly virus ravaging the Earth.
- Eight for Silver – A period horror piece that’s a “gruesome Gothic spin on werewolf lore.”
- Strawberry Mansion – A surreal romance in a glitchy future dystopia where a surveillance state conducts “dream audits” to collect taxes on people’s unconscious lives.
- How It Ends – A “pre-apocalyptic comedy” set “on the day an asteroid is scheduled to obliterate Earth.”
Sundance 2021: The basics
First, the free stuff: While much of Sundance’s program requires a ticket or a pass, the festival will make all of its talks available free to anyone who creates an account on the Sundance site. The full slate of virtual talks may have have gems that appeal to you, but for people with a tech and science bent, the standout is The Big Conversation: Come Together. This panel, inspired by how the first image of a black hole was created, uses the lens of film and TV to discuss how collaboration in sciences like astronomy, space exploration, climatology, bioscience and virology can advance human knowledge and our own survival.
Most of festival’s passes give you wide opportunities to nab a film premiere either during a single day of the fest or its entire run, but those are largely sold out. However, you can still access films and — for the tech-savvy equipped with virtual reality headset — the New Frontier program packed with tech-driven projects. For films, you can buy single-film tickets to specific movies for $15 (for US viewers only). Or if New Frontier is your main objective, you can get an Explorer Pass for $25, which unlocks all the virtual worlds Sundance created, including the whole New Frontier program, plus you get access to the the fest’s program of four episodic projects and the full program of film shorts.
If you do get a ticket or reservation for a film premiere, you unlock more than just streaming the movie itself. Fifteen minutes before the official start time, participants can join in a text-based chat among themselves and the filmmakers, akin to chatting while waiting in line (just without the sub-freezing temperatures). After a premiere, viewers will jump over to a live Q&A with the filmmakers on YouTube. And then you can go to the film’s after-party at a digital bar, one of the virtual environments in orbital space.
Anyone with a reservation for a film premiere can start watching anytime during the debut’s three-hour window, and then they have up to four hours to complete it. And all films also have a second-day screening window if you can’t make the premieres. Two days after a film debuts, it will be available to stream anytime for 24 hours starting at 9 a.m. PT.
Sundance’s organizers have crafted a myriad of explainers to detail the nitty-gritty of how all this works. That includes general overviews of how the festival will go, as well guides to getting your tech setup in place in advance, whether you’re streaming a film or diving into one of the festival’s virtual worlds.
The festival will also have in-person events as part of a satellite screening program. These take place at more than two dozen local cinemas in cities across the US, including San Francisco; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta.