End Of An Indie Era? Sundance Could Leave Park City As Festival Opens Bids For New Location IN 2027; Utah Resort Town Vows Fight To Keep It

After nearly 40 years in Park City, the Sundance Film Festival may be pulling up stakes.

With its current contract expiring after the 2026 festival, organizers of the iconic Robert Redford-founded indie film shindig in the Utah mountain town said Wednesday that they have opened a bid process for a possible move to a new city. As Deadline exclusively reported last summer, Sundance has quietly been considering a change for a while.

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At the same time, with the 2025 and 2026 festivals still set for Park City, we hear the incumbent location remains in the mix. To that end, Sundance is also exploring a renewal of its latest 13-year-old deal with the pricey resort town if a strong enough local offer is placed on the table.

The verdict to open the process now, with more than six months to go before any renewal with Park City had to be decided upon, was signed off on by founder and board president Redford himself, we hear.

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Starting today and running until May 1, Sundance is putting out a Request for Information for interested U.S. hamlets and venues to put their toe(s) in the snow, so to speak. Once the candidates are whittled down to the most viable, that RFI will be followed by a Request for Proposal process from May 7-June 21 to assess other host locations, with an emphasis on inclusivity and sustainability.

After that, a SFF RFI/RFP task force will offer its recommendations to the Ebs Burnough-led Sundance Institute board for a final decision.

“We look forward to reviewing each proposal and working together with all of our potential collaborators to determine how we can collectively meet the needs of the independent film ecosystem and broader creative community,” Burnough said today. “We are in a unique moment for our Festival and our global film community, and with the contract up for renewal, this exploration allows us to responsibly consider how we best continue sustainably serving our community while maintaining the essence of the Festival experience,” added Eugene Hernandez, Sundance programming director.

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Going deep into the latter part of the year, it’s likely the new location or the renewal of the Park City deal would be unveiled at the end of the 2025 Sundance Film Festival, we’re told — if they can keep it under wraps that long.

While most movie fans only know Park City as the home of Sundance, the festival had a variety of locales including the Sundance Resort and Salt Lake City in its early incarnations. Still, amidst a slew of Sundance leadership exits and additions over the past five years, the crippling effects of the pandemic on in-person attendance and a rapidly changing media industry, the notion of a new location for the festival outside of Park City has been in works for months.

At one point earlier this year, as Sundance opened more labs in more cities, it looked as if the consensus was for the strained festival to flip the script and make Salt Lake City its primary location, with Park City as a satellite.

However, with financial concerns, as well contractions among buyers and filmmakers an ever-increasing reality for the high-altitude fest, board members and other stakeholders saw the expiration of the current Park City contract as a “rare opportunity” to “redefine what Sundance is in the digital age,” as one well-placed source put it.

“Something had to change, the festival is outgrowing Park City, the stretch marks are showing,” a Sundance insider tells us. “The status quo needed a kick and a restart, and this is the best way to do it, even if it puts a few people’s noses out of joint.”

Amy Redford, who has taken on a greater role at Sundance over the past decade as her 87-year-old father has gradually stepped back, will be on the task force that takes in bids and applications. She also serves on the Sundance Institute board with her father, along with the likes of Jason Blum, Tessa Thompson, Lulu Wang and former Disney exec Sean Bailey.

Yet, for all the grumbling from the locals over the years about congestion and out-of-towners, Park City isn’t about to let the festival go without a fight, it seems.

“We appreciate our partnership with Sundance, and we want the Festival to remain here for another 40 years,” Park City Mayor Nann Worel on Wednesday. “We will not be alone in the effort to ensure that Utah remains host to diverse new voices from around the globe. With gratitude to the thousands of volunteers, our dedicated workforce, our residents, and the passion of our visitor and resident film lovers — we will work collaboratively with all our state and local partners on next steps.”

Those next steps involve a comprehensive package of incentives, infrastructure builds and more, sources say.

The fact is the desire to keep Sundance on the snowy slopes of Park City and Salt Lake City, where the festival has had a growing presence in recent years, is based a lot on cold hard cash.

Even though the 2023 SFF saw a bit of a dip from pre-pandemic years, the festival brought in just more than $118 million to Utah’s GNP, according to the most recent data. Digging down into the numbers, Sundance delivered $12.3 million in tax revenue to the state coffers, $96 million in spending by out-of-state visitors, and $63 million in wages.

Those are pretty strong reasons why the state intends to bid hard to keep the festival, be it in Park City or Salt Lake City.

“We see this as an opportunity to reimagine what the future of the festival looks like in Utah,” Utah Film Commission director Virginia Pearce told Deadline today. “With over 40 years of demonstrated success as the home of the Sundance Film Festival, we are well-positioned to continue this partnership.”

In its heyday, Sundance was best known as the launch pad for auteurs such as Quentin Tarantino, Ava DuVernay, David O. Russell, Nicole Holofcener, Kevin Smith, Ryan Coogler, Steven Soderbergh and Darren Aronofsky among many others. The slopeside gathering also had big pricey acquisitions by major theatrical studios (read $10 million for 1996’s Spitfire Grill by Castle Rock and Searchlight’s pickup of 2016’s Birth of a Nation for $17.5 million).

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However, over the past decade, streamers such as Netflix have moved in with heavy muscle. The tech-based companies have bought up the slots for star-studded mainstream opening-night films (like 2020’s Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary Miss Americana). They have also taken many of the festival’s movies off the table and out of big-screen distributors’ hands for awards-season runs, with recent examples including Apple snapping up ultimate Oscar Best Picture winner CODA for $25 million, and Netflix buying Carey Mulligan’s Southern period drama Mudbound for $12.5 million in 2017.

Sundance Film Festival Reviews 2024
Sundance Film Festival Reviews 2024

Sundance’s beauty contest for a new location comes at a time when swaths of Park City itself are rather cynical about the film festival, with much of that bad blood formed coming out of the pandemic.

Several local businesses Deadline spoke with expressed their ongoing frustration and anger about Sundance’s eleventh-hour cancellation of the 2022 festival in December 2021 due to fears of the Omicron strand. For the likes of restaurants that rely on the tens of thousands of visitors who hit the festival each year for a third or more of their yearly revenue, it was money lost that they’d never get back. In addition, Park City denizens have other gripes about the festival including awful traffic conditions, and the arrival of cocky industry people from New York City and Los Angeles who they mock as the “PIBs” (“People in Black”).

Institutionally, some say the writing has been in the snow since June 2022, when programming director Tabitha Jackson left. Replacing John Cooper in 2020, Jackson vied to keep the festival afloat with a largely virtual edition in 2021 and 2022. The former head of SFF’s documentary division, she also programmed fest films at indie theaters and drive-ins in Covid-safe areas of the U.S.

Caught in the middle of both the suffering Toronto Film Festival and Sundance was festival boss and former indie film producer Joana Vicente, who wrangled both fests during the pandemic era. Vicente’s time at TIFF was short-lived, from 2019- 2021, before she became CEO of Sundance Institute. She arrived to a Sundance per reports that saw revenues for the festival drop from $56 million in 2020 pre-Covid to $34 million for the virtual 2021 session. Despite shaving $2 million in liabilities during her brief run, Vicente’s fundraising skills were reportedly questioned by the Sundance Institute’s board of trustees, which led to her exit late last month.

Board member Amanda Kelso was named acting CEO in the wake of Vicente’s sudden adieu. Kelso was interim CEO previously between the departure of Kerri Putnam, after over a decade in the top job, and Vicente coming on board.

Now the festival finds itself possibly bringing on board a new home.

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