As the re-opening of movie theaters is continually postponed, film festivals are facing a unique set of challenges of their own in the ongoing pandemic. While some, like the Venice and Toronto film festivals, are determined to move ahead as planned (for now), others are finding ways to adjust and recalibrate their plans in response to ever-shifting health guidelines. The 2021 edition of the Sundance Film Festival will be Tabitha Jackson’s first as festival director. In a blog posted to the official website for the fest, Jackson says that while she “had not factored a global pandemic and an international reckoning around racial justice into” her job application, that she already knew where she intended to take the festival next. Jackson credits a conversation with Sundance founder Robert Redford for inspiring her mission with his invitation to “think not just outside the box, but as if the box never existed.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many restrictions, it seems that Jackson has found it helpful in imagining a more open and accessible Sundance Film Festival for 2021. The fest will expand beyond Park City, Utah for the first time in its almost-40-year history, offering a virtual component and Sundance outposts in other cities. In what Jackson calls a “grand partnership of communities,” Sundance is in “early talks” with independent and community movie theaters in various cities, including Austin, Los Angeles, New York City, and Nashville, to bring Sundance to cinemas across the country. Partnering theaters will play a selection of films from the festival slate alongside a curated collection of titles chosen by programmers at each theater. “This plan acknowledges the vital role of the independent cinema network in our ecosystem,” said Jackson.
The online component of the festival is crucial, as Jackson explains that it “intentionally allows us to dial up or dial down the live gatherings (especially in our Utah home) and festival length as conditions dictate.” Jackson’s plans for Sundance 2021 (and beyond) sound ambitious and exciting, but they could also offer a window into the future of film festivals, which—like everything else—may never be the same again. Those changes might be disappointing to some, but for many cinephiles, it’s a game-changer and gives them the opportunity to experience a film festival that was previously inaccessible.