Photo: Terry Straehley/Shutterstock

How to Write About a Film Festival Without Actually Attending It

by Sean Malin Feb 3, 2014

LAST YEAR, I attended the Sundance Film Festival. It was my first time ever in Park City as a film critic or journalist, and as such, I had very little access to movies, people, or cheap-enough food. A month later, I wrote in an article for Matador called On coming to terms with your mortality at a film festival that I had had trouble sleeping and was overindulging in expensive coffee in the presence of great movies. The travel, the expense, the hustle-and-bustle of Park City in 2013 — it was all too overwhelming.

So in 2014, rather than face again the emotional and fiscal costs, I made what turned out to be the best decision I could have. I didn’t go. As Matador’s “Official Correspondent” for Sundance, I “corresponded” with the films and filmmakers without once stepping foot in Park City. This time, press accreditation at the festival through Matador led to far wider access to Sundance films, shorts, and “talent” (actors, filmmakers, musicians, etc).

I spoke to filmmakers like three-time Sundance hitmaker Matthew Lessner; Christopher Radcliffe, a New York-based short filmmaker who pays out of pocket to attend the festival each time his movies play it; and Austinite Todd Rohal, whose Special Jury Prize-winning Rat Pack Rat is one of the most grotesque and fascinating things I’ve ever seen.

Sundance has made the process of writing about their festival much easier for journalists in similar situations, and other major fests are following suit. On the digital end, they put out mailing lists for every publicist, PR company, and marketing agent to contact you about screeners, interview schedules, online clips, photo downloads, and press kits. The filmmakers put many of their own films online, too, though often privately for “press,” critics, or programmers.

After an email or two, one can acquire multiple screeners for feature films, short films, documentaries, and experimental installations like Thomas Allen Harris’s remarkable and explanatorily titled Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. This beautiful art piece, for example, is now the subject of an in-progress article that might not have existed had I been at the festival (my film-going schedule last year prevented me from going to installations).

But what you can’t imagine is how much is available to non-critics who want a slice of Sundance without being able to afford it. Sundance’s Twitter feed and film guide on their website provide up-to-date information, schedules, and clips of many of the first-run movies playing there. They have a YouTube channel devoted to the award-contending short films premiering in Park City over that week. For feature films, the near-end of the festival means the further posting of “breakout” clips and even, through the Sundance Institute site, some features for research.

Lessner’s 2012 Kickstarter hit The Woods, for example, can be streamed at any time, anywhere, here. With trailers going up every new day, too, as the films start to gain buzz, journalists and cinephiles don’t need to attend the daily press conferences about what events or parties are ongoing. Sundance streams its daily press conferences and panels every day, ranging from the annual Women in Film panel to Robert Redford’s festival address, all on the same channel.

With sometimes as few as 250 seats in a theatre, the panels stream in real time to help the thousands who can’t make it to Park City at all. Or, if you miss the Q&A session on any good film, as I did en masse this year, you can watch the Sundance-YouTube partnered Google+ Hangouts with major producers and stars, like this adorable one with Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler of David Wain’s outrageous They Came Together.

For more writing from critics who did interviews and saw movies without traveling to Utah in January (for similar reasons to me in some cases), I recommend David Poland’s Why I’m Not Going to Sundance This Year.

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