Sundance FF 2020: How to ‘Virtual’ Beyond Features – Leslie Combemale reports

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In 2020, the Sundance Film Festival was one of the last live events, and showcases for new film, that happened before the world effectively shut down. Now in 2021, Sundance is, for the first time, going digital. Though there will be live screenings in select cities around the country, and possibly even in your neck of the woods, most of the films and events will be conducted online.

If you are interested in seeing some new films, there are opportunities to buy tickets to whatever isn’t already sold out. But, Sundance is about much more than just the programmed films, it is an experience that involves interacting with like-minded film fans, activists and artists in many ways, learning and making friends along the way. When the festival is live in Park City, there are so many in person interviews, performances, meetups, and gatherings, it’s impossible to do everything. Anyway, there are often gatekeepers or it’s too crowded to get into events. Not so, this year.

For film fans around the country and around the world, 2021 is the first, and potentially in some respects, the only opportunity to access a wide variety of Sundance events, interviews, and performances in an easily accessible way. Neither plane ticket to Utah nor expensive hotel room is required. The films are great, of course, but one of the most enlightening and educational aspects of Sundance is the wide variety of panels and events set as part of or as sideline to the fest. Let’s take a look at both.


New Frontier: The New Frontier series can be accessed with the Explorer Pass for $25. With it you can check out New Frontier films, as well as the Short Films and the Indie Series, on demand for the entirety of the fest, and international fans can partake. New Frontier exhibition focuses on VR and new media projects curated from creatives all over the globe. 2021’s edition will feature 32 artists across 14 projects, which will be accessed via a bespoke virtual 3D platform developed with the help of the digital experience agency Active Theory. In this virtual space, you’ll be represented as avatars with your registered photos and names, and you can interact via webcam vid chats with other festival goers. There will be three venues, all of which are accessible from around the world:

  • New Frontier Gallery: See a wide diversity of live performances, AR, VR, and other exciting media works.
  • Cinema House: This is an immersive VR theater that will host 5 screenings.
  • Film Party: You haven’t been to a bar in a while, I hope. Here’s your chance to hang out in one that has 6 screens and breakout rooms that will feature films having their world premieres at Sundance.

To find out more, go to the New Frontier program page.


There are dozens of panels and happenings, which usually take place in Festival Village on Main Street in Park City. This year all is virtual, and you don’t have to spend a dime to take part. All you have to do create an account and log in. Here’s what’s available:

Sundance ASCAP Music Café: Last year, which was my first in-person experience at Sundance, I kept trying to get in to see some of the great musicians featured at the Sundance ASCAP Music Café, but the combination of bad timing and the crush of other music fans suggested it wasn’t meant to be. This year, there are plans for surprise performances, supported by the American Society of Composers, so no doubt there will be some exciting offerings. Check their Sundance page often to see what’s happening.

Main Street: You could get lost for days with all the special events and offerings on Main Street. There really is something for film fans of every stripe. This year, Sundance sponsors have virtual lodges, and you can see interviews with filmmakers at the Amazon Studios, WarnerMedia Lodge, NPR Story Lodge, and Variety and The Atlantic lodges, among many others. The best way to find what grooves you is to wander around the Main Street page and click around until something strikes you. It bears mentioning that when the fest is in person, getting into these lodges is no picnic. This virtual experience kicks the hierarchy to the curb and lets everyone in on the conversations.

Special Interest Lounges: As an attendee, my focus has been on diverse voices, and there has been an expansion every year of lounges that foster community spirit for Latinx, Asian-American, LGBTQ, and Black creatives. There are a number of nonprofits and fest partners that will connect you with likeminded artists and activists. Among the represented are Blackhouse, Array, Color of Change, Center for Asian American Media, Asia Society Main Street Lodge, Queer House, Easterseals Disability Den, The Latino Hub, and the Women In Film Lounge.

Artist Lounge: If you’re an artist, or an aspire to be one, this is the place for you. Whether you have dreams of screenwriting and you’ve just bought your first notebook, you imagine yourself the star of a Sundance film, you’re a musician who wants to compose for film, or you’re just a huge film fan, you will find inspiration in the Artist Lounge. Through talks and events, meet and greets, and Q&As, you’ll feel a part of the creative community. For example, there are meetups about working across platforms, the art of editing, and the experience of producing, and for those who have found the need or desire to express their art during the pandemic as a way of surviving, there’s a meetup about the artistic process as a form of catharsis. For musicians curious about composing for film, you can drop in on the discussion with Kathryn Bostic, who created the music for two of the fest’s films, in the meetup ‘Integrating Music and Film’. There are also gatherings with filmmakers, including Nanfu Wang, who will be talking about documentary filmmaking.

The main page for the Festival Village has some of the featured events, so it’s worth popping in to see what might be of interest…and remember, it’s all free.

If you feel confused and want to know more about ‘how to fest’, you can hear all about it from badass filmmaker Boots Riley (writer/director of Sorry To Bother You, which you should see if you like gonzo, wackadoodle movies) and he’ll tell you all about it.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website,, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.