First Person: Diary of a Sundance Virgin

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The following journal is biased, personal, and anecdotal; it also has very little to say about movies, thought its subject is the Sundance Film Festival. What it offers is a transparent look into the experience of one of the people for whom Sundance was created: a talented young filmmaker with idiosyncratic stories to share, looking to bring those stories to a broader audience.

My younger sister’s short film, “The Hunter and the Swan Discuss Their Meeting,” is an official selection in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. This is a thrill, an honor, and an opportunity. For many filmmakers, a short in Sundance is an exciting chance to build the relationships required — with producers, distributors, composers, festival programmers, investors — to take the next step in their careers. My sister wants to make a feature; we’re in Sundance to get closer to that goal. That’s the main thing you need to know.

The other thing you need to know is that the Sundance Film Festival, as a lived experience, is completely and totally nuts.

Thursday, January 20th

11:30pm

Last-minute rush to pick up postcards in New York City (you hand out promotional postcards to everyone you meet); a layover in Dallas; complete chaos with the initially mystifying Sundance shuttle buses. After all of this, we arrive at the Sundance 2011 opening night party thrilled and exhausted. It’s in a typical Park City’s lodge-esque structure, a log-cabin exterior on one of the city’s skiing resort complexes. The large space is divided into two halves: (1) food and (2) stuff. Food is milling and a buffet line. “Stuff” is dimly lit and features an oxygen bar sponsored by Trident (basically a hookah that looks like Star Wars), a miniature hallway of shimmering reflective paper on which you’re supposed to write why you’re here at Sundance, and a dance floor.

All of this is secondary to the meet-and-greet, the chat: “So, what brings you to the Festival?” Despite the excitement, this first party is hard to distinguish from a business convention with the lights turned off. We’re all a little stiff, a little awkward. Two tiny actresses introduce themselves to me by putting a postcard in my hand, and ask with charming and ferocious repetition where my sister is once they learn that she’s a director — I truly don’t know her location in the space, but they’re not buying it. A muscular man who looks to be in his early 40s describes his trilogy of sports films: the first two are made and he’s looking for funding to complete the third, but it’s hard to know what exactly that means. The party is stilted in a way that we’ll all shake off, but the ingredients here will hold throughout the festival. Friendliness — we’re not in some brutal LA meat-market. Fancy room. Free food and alcohol — you do not pay for anything at Sundance. And hustle: endless, constant hustle. As my sister and I are getting our coats to leave the two actresses find us; they introduce themselves to her, give her a postcard, and then are off down the line, passing out postcards and introductions as they go.

Friday, January 21st

4:40pm

I have bought $200 of tickets to screenings that are physically impossible for me to get to. It’s apparently a common mistake; a lot of people don’t realize that many of the venues for Sundance screenings are in Salt Lake City, Ogden, and other locations 30 to 60 minutes outside of the nucleus that is Park City. It takes almost an hour for Cory at the box office to patiently help me exchange all the tickets, navigating the duel constraints of our schedule of parties, gatherings, and meetings, and the fact that most screenings are already sold out. This is the first time I hear something that will be repeated throughout the festival: after a bad couple of recessionary years, the audiences are back this year with sold-out shows, 200-person wait lists, and queues around the block.

8:25pm

Outside of New Frontiers, an exhibit that adds visual art to the portfolio of attractions Sundance offers, I get my most important lesson in hustle: how to get into events. Sundance is events — there are screenings, yes, but in the first few days when industry is there, the parties are the focus. Bluntly: inside the parties are people you need, people who might help a young director make her first feature. You have to get in. But if you’re at the stage my sister is, reasonable people might disagree about whether or not you actually belong inside. Success in getting in tends to beget success in getting in, so getting into this art exhibit feels like a good start. The scenario:

• It is opening night, which means a private party in the exhibits, followed by an after-party elsewhere. The event has a particular charge of exclusivity and glamour because there is a Big Movie Star involved.

• You are supposed to have tickets to get into this private party. We do not have tickets; we never have tickets. We have RSVP’ed in some vague unconfirmed way to a person with a name.

• I am armed solely with this name; first name, no surname.

I walk up to the trailer where those who will be granted entrance get wrist bands (it’s always wrist bands: plastic wrist bands with three drink tickets on them). Two couples before me are turned away by the increasingly irritated and very pretty woman staffing the booth: she isn’t in charge of tickets to the actual art exhibition, the list she has is only for some other thing, plus you need tickets to get in so why are these people even asking her? But I have one little peg of fact on which to hang my conviction that we belong inside. I cling to that name – we sent an email! We sent a dude an email! – and build a reality around it, and to my amazement actual reality budges in response: after thirty seconds of badgering, she yields and waves me over to the plastic wrist band guy. We’re in.

1130pm

WORLD PREMIERE OF THE FILM. This is too serious and good for me to say much about it. My little sister walks into a theater at the Sundance Film Festival. People, paying customers, fill the movie theater. Her movie plays to fantastic response, in a program of uniformly excellent short films. Afterward, business cards are exchanged, along with “send me the film” and “what’s next?” from audience members. We’re really starting to do the thing that we’re here for.

Saturday, January 22nd

10:40pm

We were supposed to see two movies tonight. We skip them because some nice folks in a scrappy department of a Major Media Conglomerate want to meet with my sister; the form of the meeting is a hot-tub party at their house. We arrive early, partially because of my completely naïve thought that it may allow us to catch the midnight movie to which we have tickets. It has become clear to me that seeing movies is just not part of the plan, but I’m resistant to the lesson and fighting it hard. In the event, however, the “nice folks” are in fact nice folks: relaxed and easy to hang out with, and we quickly slip into a comfortable house party good time.

1am

We decide that the party requires hot tub but are faced with a problem: it is not heating up. I download the manual from the Internet while water is boiled to pour into it.

2:08am

It turns out that downloading instructions from the Internet is a really effective way to solve this kind of problem: a few of us are in the now 101-degree hot tub. It’s hard not to actively acknowledge the moment as a “this is living”-type thing: in a hot-tub on a balcony overlooking Park City, socializing with people whom it’s easy to talk to and who may in some unforced way be a part of my sister’s professional future. A few lights are on in Park City below, and we take turns sitting on the lip of the tub to cool off in the cold night air.

Sunday, January 23rd

11:25am

My sister and I wake up in the Major Media Conglomerate’s house. After getting out of the hot tub at around 5:30am we slept wherever in various states of disaster. But there is the Outfest Queer Brunch to go to; we’re hungry and word is that the food is good, so we drag ourselves together (my boxers, all I had for the hot tub, are not yet dry and so go in my pocket), making plans with our new friends to hang out that evening.

11:25pm

The Bing Club is (I assume) a regular bar that Microsoft re-“Bing” brands for Sundance. Cee Lo Green is going to give a concert in the intimate space, and we’re dancing to ’80s rock and top-40 hip hop while waiting for him to show. I am drinking Vodka Red Bulls because I am very tired. We are all tired; there was a serious risk of total social collapse, everyone going separately to their own chambers and houses, but somehow we all rallied to deploy a relationship with the Bing’s bouncer (it is not clear who has this relationship) to skip a very long line and roll in a couple of hours before Cee Lo takes the stage. His set, when it finally comes, is too short, just five or six songs. But there he is, in a room with maybe 100 people and us, dancing, postcards and DVDs of my sister’s film in my pockets for anyone who asks, “So, why are you at the Festival?”

Monday, January 24th

12:15pm

I actually manage to see a movie. The lines to get into movies are indeed pretty long, even if you get there early.

3pm

Finally, schwag! We’ve been hearing about festival schwag: an $800 Eddie Bauer gift basket, designer swimsuits, buckets of luxury skin creams, all handed out at deluxe parties to shimmering guests. Apparently, we are not going to these parties. But a friend of my sister’s who seems to know everyone and be on every guest list at Sundance – we’ll call him the Mayor – knows a spot where we can get schwag. A party hosted by a major music label, with bands playing downstairs and a velvet-roped upstairs with reps standing by to give you headphones, shoes, cappuccinos, clothes, cameras, vodka. The Mayor guides us up past the rope but then leaves us alone, and we are stranded in elite enemy territory without the right badges – I feel like everyone must know I don’t belong behind this rope. But again, we have one small shred of truth – the Mayor brought us – and we cling to it and walk out with headphones, a blingy cap, and a t-shirt. It’s not that you want the things. It’s that you want to be given the things.

8:30pm

Our group now somehow includes the Mayor, a Film Executive, an Actress, and a music promoter. Our goal is to get into the Napa party; the Napa party is a desirable party. Through a complicated set of negotiations and fake pairings – those with the strongest claim to entry adopt those with weaker claims as +1s – we all succeed.

The provenance of this “Napa party” is unclear to the casual observer – it appears to be hosted by some combination of the Napa Valley Film Festival, a consortium of vintners, Stella Artois, and perhaps a tech firm. The upshot, however, is magnificent: the Platonic ideal of a chic Sundance cocktail party. The walls are lined with stations for separate vineyards in Napa, each with a representative eager to explain the wine and give you a glass of whatever you like. Trays of delicious food glide through the crowd, including a numbingly amazing chocolate truffle thing involving basil, balsamic vinegar (sic), and pepper.

There are also fancy people here. These people are a little older and much better dressed than we are. It’s the sort of party where — let’s just totally make up a random example here — a young female filmmaker might walk up to a group of three men talking, expecting that a young female director walking into a group of three men will be welcomed with gracious interest, only to find that she has crashed what is basically a pitch session in which two producers of a website you have heard of are pitching an actor you have heard of, trying to get him to appear in content on their site, leaving our young female director trapped in an awkward situation between a gracious but perplexed famous actor and two producers who are, basically, irritated at the interruption. It’s also the sort of party where you meet a lot of open, interested people who want to talk about a young director’s future. Everyone is there for the same thing, which is to mingle and meet in a relaxed and civil way. Napa is good to us.

Tuesday, January 25th

3:34am

We’ve moved from Napa to the Big Man’s party. I’m not 100% sure where we are, geographically speaking. The party is in a large condo: the Big Man’s condo. The Big Man is an impresario – he’s an entertainment lawyer but functions and parties much more like what I think of as a film producer. He is an incredibly gracious host, humorously and easily reminding guests that they have to move cars that are blocking his neighbors in, rolling from small group to small group, bantering and hanging out. THIS is the kind of party — let’s just make up another completely random example that did not happen — at which a character actor whose name you might not know but whose face you do and a young female director might talk for hours, leaving her moved and elated that a face from a show that is definitive for her generation now is attached to a person who has positive thoughts and opinions about her and who may or may not text her subsequently. Everyone is friendly, conversations are picked up and dropped off easily, rejoined an hour later in a different spot, discontinued for flaming Sambuca shots or when three guests the size of linebackers spill half the drinks off a table onto the carpet, eliciting nothing more from the Big Man than a smiling remonstrance as a band that has somehow set itself up fully in the corner plays early morning rock for the crowd.

6:17am

After sleeping for 20 minutes at the Major Media Conglomerate’s house where we wind up for reasons no longer available to me we embark on what I expect to be a ten-minute stroll but turns out to be a 40-minute wild goose chase through the frigid, pre-dawn streets of Park City. What we are looking for is the apartment where a friend of mine who has been shortlisted for an Academy Award has invited us to join him for the announcements of the nominations. I stand in the whistling wind, staring hostilely at a building whose number seems to imply that the building we are looking for simply does not exist, as my sister the genius filmmaker stamps her feet and makes small animal noises behind me, moving in little circles.

7:40am

Back at our place. Victory: friend nominated. Sleep.

12:15pm

Movie. No sister – still sleeping. I take the shuttle driven by Greg, who can say “hello” and “how are you” in 27 languages, a skill he demonstrates when a pair of Filipino men get on the bus.

3:30pm

Movie. Fantastic movie: Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same. It exceeds the promise of its title.

9:10pm

Big Party: the awards ceremony for the short films, held at a bowling alley to which we are bused in cheerful, thronging crowds. The picking of winners happens after several hours of bowling, drinking, eating. Schwag is gifted: American Apparel bowling socks branded with a Las Vegas Casino/Hotel, and for a lucky few some free nights at the place. No awards are won by our team, but my sister makes friends with some perfectly nice boys and I talk to an actress who is even prettier in person than on camera, until a very tall guy in a nice hat comes along and I’m left drinking with my Academy-Award nominated friend. He’s wearing the mantle of nominee status with characteristic easy humility, but this doesn’t prevent a sort of feeding frenzy of ostensibly low-key conversations: what’re you working on? Oh hey yeah, really? The script is how far along? Yeah yes no send it we’d love to see it, yes. The groovy irony is that his film was rejected from Sundance last year.

11:20pm

In the darkened shuttle from the awards ceremony to the Kodak party – into which we will succeed in talking our way; we’re getting good – I make a friend of someone who in the clatter of the bowling party I’d misjudged. We talk about nothing, stuff: family, career, Sundance, the Upper West Side. My slantwise mind decides that I’ve learned something about how a good partying night is shaped: you go to the thing and you party at the thing, you talk to people and bounce off each other and latch on to one or two of them, then you go from the thing to the next thing, and in those transition moments you might just find a quiet minute for a conversation that actually feels like a human being getting to know another human being a little bit. So you exchange business cards, and maybe you’ve actually made a friend.

12:50am

The Kodak party is a little disappointing; Napa but less glossy, less heady with potential. Everyone standing, bright rooms, a live band but it’s not getting the younger people out on the floor. I sit by the wall, exhausted, as my sister circulates. I meet a children’s author who is at Sundance to pursue a potential collaboration with some filmmakers whose movie shares themes with her book. My sister is still up and going and she comes out having met more people to whom she’ll reach out later. It is always going.

Wednesday, January 26th

7:45pm

We’re slow in making this day happen, recovering gradually from the maelstrom of the last three days. After working (emails to follow up with people met, introductions made), working out, and attending to somehow fictional-seeming non-Sundance errands, we get it together to attend a 6pm screening. We both have some problems with the movie, and in the Q&A my sister delicately and respectfully asks a light question that touches on one aspect that didn’t work for her. The filmmakers are unable to answer it, and move on to a series of edifying questions that all begin with, “I loved how…”

9:27pm

After an hour, we are still outside of a BMI event that was supposed to be a cinch to get into. Here’s the thing: Sundance calms down after those first crazy days. But it’s not like everyone leaves, and tonight this is the only party in town. We miscalculated – they’re at capacity by 8:30pm, and only letting in a trickle of people, with preference for people actually on the guest list over mere credential holders. And if you’re neither of those: forget it.

9:48pm

We’re in. It is lovely. Same space as Napa – not as fancily decked out, more functional, but with some fun HP-sponsored touch screens on the wall that allow you to record short videos and send them to people (we send three: our mom and some friends). The food is only okay (we are, by now, deeply and irredeemably spoiled) but the bartenders pour full glasses if you tip and are friendly. More to the point – and here I will name names – Robert Randolph and the Family Band are the final act of BMI’s concert-style party, and they light up the whole room: everyone dancing, clapping, smiling at each other in the delight of straight-ahead great live music.

12:47am

We – a new “we,” minus my sister and plus a friend I made on line for BMI and an old friend (met Tuesday) – have gone on to a couple of after-party bars and then the “Late Night Lounge,” Sundance’s every-night party for anyone with a film credential. We dance, but none of the girls really want to dance with us and we leave a few minutes before the party shuts down at 1 to avoid the crush. My Old Friend wants to go on to a party outside the city, but at this point I have nothing left and I’m up early tomorrow for skiing. We bro hug and exchange affirmations of keeping in touch, and I am in a cab towards home and sleep, talking to the cabbie about the surprising querulousness of some of his fares: it’s like they’ve never paid fifteen dollars for a four-minute cab ride before.

Thursday, January 27th

8:40am

Skiing. The Mayor and I go to Deer Valley for an extraordinarily beautiful day that has nothing to do with movies or meeting people at parties. On the lift for our final run, the Mayor says, maybe to himself, “A day without email.” We hop off the lift to carve one last line down the slopes.

10:30pm

The Mayor takes us to another party, this one picturesquely situated at The Yard. It’s my sister’s birthday and she’s gone from being at peace with an evening of responding to emails and following up on business cards to being deeply not at peace with that: she wants out, fun, people. Upon arrival at the building we remove a chair blocking a door that has somehow accidentally been marked with a “Do Not Enter” sign, open the door, and walk into a coat check foyer full of attractive women unruffled by our means of ingress. The Mayor was on the list, but this way feels refreshingly direct.

This party, however, quickly feels old for me. The crowd, like many crowds at the festival, is hard to parse: young, old, nerd, svelte; within the first fifteen minutes we are accosted by a drunk and dolled up middle-aged Russian woman, have a nice conversation with an earnest and committed documentarian, and are gracefully greeted and then equally gracefully dismissed by the Big Man. I take my leave soon after that – there’s no fire in my belly tonight.

The Mayor and my sister go on for another big night at the Big Man’s house; as I finalize this report to you in the very small hours, dear reader, they’re still there. There is a stack of business cards on the table, some non-zero percent of which belong to people who will respond when we email them. She’s talking to more people right now – informally, socially, but that seems to be how first steps are taken here. Maybe we have it all wrong. There’s no way to be sure. But I doubt it.

You’ll have to ask me next year.