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Sundance in SLC: A look at the festival’s expansion into downtown

Published: 01/11/2018
By Court Mann, Deseret News — Sundance Film Festival is in Park City, right? Well, yes, but it’s also in Salt Lake City, too — and more and more, in a big way.

This year’s festival, which kicks off Jan. 18, will include 141 separate screenings in Salt Lake City alone. If every seat at every Salt Lake City screening were filled this year, it could accommodate 61,048 attendees.

“I mean, almost every one of them sells out,” said Brian Patrick, a professor and head of film production at the University of Utah’s Film & Media Arts Department. “Since they moved down to Salt Lake, it’s been really packed. And it’s often just as difficult to get tickets down there as it is up in Park City.”

Perhaps that Salt Lake demand is only fitting. In its original iteration, the festival — then called the Utah Film Festival, which started in 1978, and later the U.S. Film Festival — happened in Salt Lake City. The festival moved to Park City in 1981 and a few years later became part of actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, but it wasn't until 1991 that it became known officially as the Sundance Film Festival. As the festival has grown over the past 27 years, it's increasingly relied on its geographic roots, expanding back into Salt Lake sites to handle increasing attendance.

Patrick has watched Sundance’s entire trajectory up close. He’s taught a Sundance Film Festival course at the University of Utah since the early 1980s, and even made a documentary, “The Hide Out,” that the festival featured. He remembers meeting with Utah Film Festival founder Sterling Van Wagenen years before that, when the festival was nothing but an idea in Van Wagenen’s head. Patrick had helped launch film festivals in Athens, Ohio, and Boulder, Colorado, but those were focused on short films. As Patrick remembers it, Van Wagenen wanted to go bigger. He dreamed of a festival focused on feature-length independent films.

“The idea of doing (it) was kind of prohibitive and expensive, and just plain difficult to fundraise and everything. And I said, ‘I just don’t see it. There’s just not that much product out there,’” Patrick recalled.

“And I’ll tell you, I ate those words.”

As the festival grew, Patrick saw a major opportunity for his film students. After all, the festival was at the forefront of independent cinema, and it was happening mere miles from campus. He started a festival-focused college course, where students would attend the festival, see films and write analyses of what they watched. He still teaches that class.

“I used to actually require more films than I do now, because it’s so difficult to get tickets,” he said. “And they’re very expensive. It’s hard to see a lot of films. I remember it used to be that you could see 20 or 30 films. Now it’s almost impossible to do that.”

Sundance’s Salt Lake venues

Five different Salt Lake City theaters host Sundance films this year. Here’s a quick rundown, in order of when they became Sundance venues.

The Tower Theatre, 876 E. 900 South, Sundance venue since 1992: For a more old-school experience, head to Salt Lake's 9th and 9th cinema, the Tower Theatre. The Salt Lake Film Society was founded in 2001 to renovate the then-crumbling movie house, which first opened in 1928. With 340 wooden seats, it still maintains some of its historic charm. The Tower’s connection to Sundance runs deep: Last year’s Sundance film “Brigsby Bear” actually features a scene inside the theater.

Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Sundance venue since 2003: Downtown’s popular independent movie theater shows Sundance films on two of its screens for an entire week. Those two screens have seating capacities of 243 and 245, respectively. Also, the Broadway has the best snacks of just about any theater.

Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Sundance venue since 2006: The picturesque performance space holds three different theaters. One of those, which seats nearly 500, will screen a number of notable Sundance films this year. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the much-anticipated documentary on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” host Fred Rogers, kicks things off for the theater on Jan. 19.

Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South, Sundance venue since 2012: The library’s theater will host 24 different movies this time around, including all three films in this year’s Kids Films program, “Lu Over the Wall,” “Science Fair” and “White Fang.” It’s a smaller theater, seating 300.

The Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State Street, Sundance venue since 2015: With a seating capacity of 1,100, the Grand is Sundance’s largest Salt Lake hub. Nineteen different Sundance films will be screened there this year.

For more information on this year's festival, visit sundance.org.
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