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Why an in-person Sundance Film Festival is good news for the film industry

The Sundance Film Festival takes place this week in Park City, Utah for the first time in three years.

Sundance is both a place for the public to see new movies and a place where new movies can go to be seen by potential buyers.

Variety film critic Peter Debruge has a favorite place to watch movies at Sundance: in the front row of the balcony. He said you can really feel the energy of the audience from there.

“It’s not like it necessarily changes my assessment,” Debruge said. “My reaction is my reaction. I think that also applies to people who buy movies. But at the same time, you know, suddenly, whether I love or hate a movie, I know what the audience is going to think.

Sundance has been held virtually for the past two years, meaning Debruge and would-be movie distributors have been watching world premieres in their pajamas.

“You know, I think people really crave to get back to that theater experience and discover new talent and have this experience that’s so unique to Sundance,” said Joana Vicente, CEO of the Sundance Institute.

Vicente is quick to point out that some films were still successful when they debuted online with the festival. The winner of the most recent Oscar for Best Picture, “CODA”, was snapped up by Apple in 2021 for $25 million.

Most filmmakers with films premiering at Sundance are actively seeking distributors for their work, including Laura Gabbert, whose new documentary is called “Food and Country.”

“We want to sell the film,” said Gabbert. “So there are buyers at Sundance and something magical happens at (a) Sundance premiere.”

Gabbert’s film tells the story of independent farmers, fishermen and restaurateurs through the lens of food critic Ruth Reichl. “My parents didn’t care about food, but they loved restaurants,” Reichl says in a clip from the film.

In 2015, another movie by Gabbert called “City of Gold” debuted at Sundance and she received multiple offers. She thinks that wouldn’t have happened if she had just sent the distributors a link to the movie.

“You know, there were a lot of buyers in the room and they felt the excitement and the laughter in the audience and felt moved,” said Gabbert.

She said it’s not just her film that’s at stake, but the independent film genre as a whole.

“It’s getting harder and harder to be an independent filmmaker, and it’s getting harder and harder to find funding for truly independent films,” said Gabbert.

That means if they aren’t shown in a theater at Sundance, they may not be shown in theaters anywhere.

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