SIMPLY ATTENDING SUNDANCE IS A DREAM for many filmmakers. To premiere a film there is a prestigious honor, and one that brings with it plenty of perks, particularly during the festival itself. Special parties, exclusive lounges filled with sponsored sandwiches, froufrou snacks, and tiny breath spray samples -- swag abounds for those on the inside. But what of those of us who are almost, but not quite, in that golden circle? What if you’re a filmmaker with a premiere at the Sundance Channel headquarters, but with a debut screening at Catdance rather than Sundance?
That’s where I sit. It’s an odd notion, to be at Sundance as a cat filmmaker, but not really surprising given pop culture’s ongoing obsession with all things feline. Here’s a bit of background: For two years in a row, my husband and I -- legitimate Chicago-based short filmmakers who happen to have had a few successful cat films -- have been sent to Sundance to promote our film shorts in Catdance, a festival that’s more of a corporate-sponsored sideline to the main film festival than a stand-alone event. Being selected for inclusion in Catdance amounts to a paid trip to the film festival, an invite to one party, and a whole lot of free time to fill. I can almost hear you saying: But there are plenty of films to see and glamorous things to do! And there are, but for those of us on the not-quite-inside to make the most out of the experience, it helps to have a little luck, a few well-placed VIP connections, and a convincing smile.
The Sundance Film Festival takes place in various theaters spread around the small mining town-turned-ski resort of Park City, Utah. The sprawl of area hotels surrounding Park City makes it difficult to travel on foot, so when my husband and I arrived, our first task was to figure out the bus system. It’s free, which is great, but also crowded with snowsuit-clad families hanging tight to dripping skis, which makes for less than comfortable, slightly damp rides. But no matter, we thought. We’re at Sundance!
We step off the bus onto Main Street and are immediately taken by the charm of the mountain scenery. Every building has character and a storied past - and every one seems to have a plaque boasting of that history attached to its face. Around nine in the morning, the main thoroughfare is still sleepy. Seemingly perpetual sunshine glints off the snowy peaks nearby - it makes photography difficult, but relaxing is easy. The streets are packed with small shops, many of them set up just for the festival, and I find myself wondering what the town looks like during any given day outside of Sundance. There’s nothing hurried about the pace this time of day. You could spend hours ambling, or standing at the base of the ski lifts watching the photographers scurry to catch pictures of the latest celebrity to step down from the sky.
Around noontime, the streets are a little more crowded. Lines begin to form for the free veggie lunch offered by Morningstar Farms. You wait in line, see a menu, choose whatever you want, and then you are presented with a bill totaling zero dollars and zero cents. A small luxury, I realize, but it feels dreamy to be treated like a special guest. The miserly part of me is inordinately proud that we managed to spend one entire day at Sundance without spending a penny - smiling our way into lounges and looking for some of the plentiful freebies, greasing the wheels by casually mentioning that we’re filmmakers here for the festival, omitting the “cat” part as necessary.
You could spend hours ambling, or standing at the base of the ski lifts watching the photographers scurry to catch pictures of the latest celebrity to step down from the sky.
In fact, we were, as Catdance-featured talent, privy to a few special events. Sadly, our VIP-cat filmmaker status wasn’t sufficient to gain entry to the glitzier lounges. You need giant badges proclaiming your film’s inclusion in the larger festival to get into those. Rather than stand outside jealously watching the “real” filmmakers make their way in and out, munching on the giant gourmet sandwiches we weren’t allowed to touch, we soldiered on looking for the places willing to cater to average festival-goers. Meals were provided by the likes of the aforementioned veggie burger peddlers and Quaker Oats, who set up a giant public lounge at the end of the street. When we entered at 11 a.m., we were met with loud dance music being scratched out by a DJ in the front lobby. Gibson had a display of guitars tucked into the corner, and in the center there was a giant oatmeal bar staffed by servers spooning the stuff into cups and offering gourmet additions. For me, peanut butter, bananas, and honey -- hold the turkey bacon. It’s funny that a customized cup of oatmeal with your choice of toppings can leave you feeling pretty darned important just for being at the festival, filmmaker or not.
Free food aside, like most in attendance, we were really at Sundance to see some movies. Of course films are central to the event but, it turns out, getting tickets to a given showing can be surprisingly rough work; we only managed it with some luck. We saw many festival-goers using the new app provided by Sundance, checking in two hours before a movie started to see if they would be allowed in. We heard of some groups who had to split up -- only some in their party admitted to a screening, the others left out to find other amusement. Someone working on behalf of Lens Crafters at Sundance Channel headquarters gave us our first pair of tickets to a screening; even then, the fine print let us know our seat was not guaranteed, that we’d have to arrive early if we hoped to get in. Even so, we pocketed them, feeling lucky - our first (and only) screening pass! - and continued on our tour.
Stopping in at the discrete basement entrance to the Canon craft services lounge required a little more finesse.
“Are you filmmakers?”
“Why yes, yes we are.”
“What film did you make?”
“A cat film,” we said with as much gravitas as we could muster.
And it’s at this point in the exchange that we were met, not for the first or only time on this trip, with a sort of disbelieving, “say what?” stare. Flustered but not impolite, she flipped her clipboard pages and asked if we were “on the list.”
“No," we said, "but we’d like to be."
After a few minutes of banter and Canon-brand flattery, we were permitted entry into the company-sponsored cavernous wine cellar and given access to the goods. My husband shopped for new cameras, and I filled my pockets -- with organic peanut butter cups, fruit, brownies, raw coconut treats, and juice bottles that likely retailed for $5 a pop. I refuse to be ashamed. Cat films, popular or not, haven’t exactly proven lucrative -- and, really, the sponsors want us to sample their wares, right? After some conversation and a tour of cameras far out of our present budget allowances, the good folks at Canon invited us back for an exclusive party that evening. And so, after a brief nap in our room and a change of clothes, marveling at our continued good fortune, we set off back to Main Street.
The quiet and only slightly buzzing thoroughfare of the morning was a packed trap by evening, teeming with meandering masses of people trying to see what there was to see. Ski gear was exchanged for giant fur hats and cascades of carefully coiffed hair, neatly arranged and photo-ready. Lines for the Egyptian Theater and ticket services stretched down the block. Even the queue to get into our little party took 15 minutes to navigate. Clutching our “maybe” tickets for that evening’s film, we entered the VIP party where we were slowly but inexorably crushed into the back room. There we found a photographer taking photos for “cinematographers only.” My husband got in line. When it was his turn, he was again asked, “Are you a filmmaker?” and the cat conversation began anew. This time, our gatekeeper was flummoxed. “You know what?” she said, “I have no idea what to do, so just go ahead.” And so my husband, “cinematographer of cats,” got his free headshot.
It’s funny how a free cup of oatmeal (customized with your choice of toppings!) can leave you feeling pretty darned important, just for being at the festival.
Just before leaving, we ran into someone we knew from home, a guy who heads up one of the other (non-cat) film festivals we’ve participated in over the years. He was kind enough to give us some spare tickets for a screening later that evening. His tickets listed the film shown as only “TBD;” its start time conflicted with the “maybe” tickets to a sci-fi flick we’d been holding on to all day. We made a clutch decision and decided to go with door number two.
We killed some time eating more free veggie burgers, but still arrived insanely early for our 9:30 “TBD” film at the Eccles Theatre. We sat on the cold ground inside a slightly heated tent, playing iPad games and listening to the crowd grow around us for the next two hours. I struck up a conversation with a man behind us in line; he told us that the movie we were there to see was, in fact, Boyhood, a world premiere starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette that Richard Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years.
Our “TBD” turned out to be one of the hottest tickets at the fest. When the stars stepped up onstage to briefly introduce the film, my thirteen-year-old self was giddy at seeing Ethan Hawke, a face I’d grown up with, right there in front of us. The celebrity aspect of all of this was heady stuff, a chance to see a world premiere with the actors and director in the audience. But the truly rare treat was the opportunity to see a significant film while it’s so new that it doesn’t yet have credits. It was so recently finished that presenters couldn’t even be sure it would be ready to screen in time. That is the type of opportunity Sundance is about.
Based on the conversations I overheard, as you’d expect, many people go to Sundance for the A-list parties, or because they want to get into films. Some just go to experience the scene, to walk up and down Main Street, take photos of celebrities and people-watch. You can ski and sip hot chocolate by the fireplace; if you’re a hardy soul, you can take a dip in the (outdoor!) pools, frigid temperatures be damned.
Someday, it would be nice to experience the Sundance festival as insiders, but for now, my husband and I can’t complain. As filmmakers, hearing from others working in our craft about their projects and seeing brand new work in their company, is invigorating. We left inspired to reach further in our own filmmaking projects, to take more chances and find innovative ways to tell stories of our own. Experiencing Sundance the way we did, with the help of a little luck and plenty of smiling, turned out to be the cat’s meow.
Noted event information:
The 2014 Sundance Film Festival took place in Park City, Utah January 22 to February 1, 2014. The Fresh Step™ Catdance Film Festival short film finalists were screened during Sundance. The public may watch them online and vote on their favorites through February 28, 2014.
Watch the author's 2014 Catdance Film Festival video below:
About the author: Although her master’s degree is actually in music, Alana Grelyak has been a writer for many years, and her work has been published in Time Out Chicago, CMA Today, Lumino Magazine, Laughspin, and other publications. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of CatInTheFridge.com, where she advocates for animals some might see as less adoptable, but that she sees as very, very special. She is also the primary script writer for the CATastrophes web series, where funny things happen when cats appear. She lives with her husband, cats, dog, and fish in Chicago, IL.