An Insider's Guide to the Sundance Film Festival

16 tips on navigating the nation's top indie festival

At the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, you might discover an artist at the beginning of a career. Like the young actress, barely 18, who filled the screen with her courage in Winter’s Bone at the 2010 festival. I rode in an elevator with her that year and complimented her on her performance. She graciously thanked me. Today, Jennifer Lawrence is one of the world’s highest-paid actresses.

Since 1985, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute has put on the festival, where filmmakers screen films for audiences and buyers. Today, it curates about 200 independent fiction and documentary films each year from the U.S. and around the world.

I’ve had an insider’s view of the festival for nearly three decades. My wife, Michelle Satter, is the founding director of the Sundance Feature Film Program and the Screenwriters and Directors labs, which mentor screenwriters, directors, playwrights, and producers whose works are often screened here. 

But you don’t have to be a Hollywood insider to attend Sundance. With my insider’s tips, you can be a part of the Sundance scene. 

1. First rule of the festival is to reserve housing well in advance. Limited availability creates surge pricing, which means most accommodations cost more during the Sundance Festival. Here are a few of my recommendations on where to stay and dine.

2. Sign up for the email list on the Sundance Institute’s website, and buy tickets online as soon as they go on sale: mid-October for next year’s festival. sundance.org/festival.

3. Register online to gain access to sponsored pop-ups in Park City’s Old Town. In past years, these have offered free coffee, lounges, and events such as live music shows. Find links to next year’s sponsors on the festival website. 

4. Go to Festival Headquarters at the Park City Marriott, 1895 Sidewinder Drive, Park City, for catalogs, film guides, and transit maps.

5. Arrive early to screenings—at least 15 minutes before the scheduled time. A ticket doesn’t guarantee you a seat.

6. Look out for the Secret Screening. In 2017, that was Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning (best original screenplay) Get Out.

7. Know that sci-fi and horror films generally screen at midnight.

8. For a Robert Redford sighting, check the program to see if he’s scheduled to appear on a panel.

9. Stay for the post-screening discussions. After many screenings, directors, screenwriters, producers, or actors participate in question-and-answer sessions with the audience. At panel discussions, topics range from Oscar nominations to the interaction of art and activism.

10. You can buy individual tickets at all box offices during the festival. Individual tickets cost $20–$25. Prices vary on packages of 10 or 20 tickets, which include two official credentials that allow entry into all festival venues. Every film screens multiple times at different theaters from early morning until late at night.

11. If a film you want to see is sold out, sign up for eWaitlist tickets on the Sundance Film Festival app, which also has maps and a My Favorites page to keep track of movies you want to see. sundance.org/mobile#.

12. Vote for your favorite films. At the Awards Ceremony on the festival’s last day, Audience Awards are announced along with the Jury Awards.

13. Use the free shuttle that runs among all the theaters. Parking in Park City is limited and expensive and not available at the theaters, so don’t bring your car. 

14. Be aware of the cost on ride-sharing services; surge pricing can be high.

15. Join the Sundance Institute. Become a member at the Indie ($65), Supporter ($500), or Storyteller ($2,500) level, and you join the Sundance community. sundance.org/support.Your contribution supports artists all year long, and you can purchase festival tickets online before they go on sale to the public. You can also attend members-only screenings and ticket giveaways. The Sundance Institute: (435) 658-3456 or (310) 360-1981.

16. Become a volunteer. About 2,000 volunteers assist at transit stops, theaters, and venues. In exchange, they receive tickets to films. volunteers@sundance.org.

[Plan your trip to Sundance. Get insider tips on where to stay, dine and pre- and post-festival activities.]

Top photo: The Egyptian Theater is a top venue for Sundance Film Fesival screenings. | Aurora Photos / Alamy Stock Photo