As Sundance Film Festival Goes Virtual, Park City Businesses Suffer

From late January to early February, when the Sundance Film Festival transforms the tiny ski community of Park City, Utah, into a hub of moviegoing and deal-making, Adolph’s is a flurry of activity.

The Park City restaurant, located right next door to the Eccles Theater, is the go-to place for filmmakers, studio executives, journalists and star gazers looking to grab a bite to eat between screenings and premieres. Over the years, Chef Adolph Imboden has served chateaubriand, medallions of elk and steak Diane to the likes of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep. From 4 p.m. to late at night, the restaurant is packed and tables are hard to come by — a frequent occurrence for a town that sees its population swell from 8,000 full-time residents to 100,000 people over the course of the festival.

But this year Sundance has gone virtual, a concession to COVID-19, and the raging virus means that the tens of thousands of visitors from around the world who typically descend on Park City will stay safely ensconced in their homes. It’s indisputable that welcoming film lovers en masse to the resort town would be dangerous during a pandemic, but the festival’s move online will still take a toll on the local economy. Imboden estimates that his business will suffer at last a 40% hit with the absence of an in-person festival.

“It’s devastating to all of us,” says Imboden. “Sundance is huge for Park City. I sure hope it all returns and we will still be here.”

Over the decades, the festival has seen its profile rise. By hosting the breakthrough efforts of moviemakers like Quentin Tarantino, Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay and David O. Russell, Sundance has developed a reputation as the preeminent force in indie film and a must-attend for executives hoping to discover a rising generation of auteurs. As Sundance grew, Park City profited. A recent study found that the 2020 edition of the festival injected more than $135 million into the economy of Utah, with the bulk of that spending taking place in Park City and neighboring Summit County. It also contributed to 2,730 jobs for state residents, as well as $17.8 million in state and local tax revenue.

“It’s a pretty seismic impact,” says Andy Beerman, the mayor of Park City. “No one was surprised that they decided to go virtual, but it does hurt. One thing to know, though, is we are a tourism-oriented town and one that has its roots in mining, so we’re used to booms and busts. If there’s no snow one year, it hurts our economy. If there’s a dot-com bust or a real estate crash, we feel that. This is no different.”

The shortfall isn’t unique to Park City. Cities such as Toronto and Cannes, which routinely host film festivals, saw their events canceled or moved largely online, depriving each city of nearly $200 million in economic activity.

In the case of Park City, the festival has often been viewed with wariness by residents even as they appreciate the financial windfall it provides. Locals gripe about the traffic, which can turn even the most placid drivers into raving maniacs, but the opportunities to make money seem limitless. Hotels and motels charge triple or quadruple their nightly rates — and find takers. Ubers can be had, if you’re willing to pay surge pricing (and if you’re not comfortable with shelling out $60 to $70 to go a couple miles, walk; but be mindful of icy sidewalks). Waiters can pull in more than $1,000 a night in tips. And locals can put a dent in their mortgage payments by renting out their homes, while some businesses earn 10% to 15% of their annual revenue during the two-week festival.

“Sundance is the high moment for our industry,” says Mélanie Marier, CEO of Canyon Transportation. “It’s all hands on deck. Everyone, even part-time drivers in Salt Lake City, stops what they’re doing and heads up the mountain.”

Like Adolph’s, Atticus Coffee, Books & Teahouse is full to overflowing during the festival. The tiny coffee shop, which boasts a killer dirty chai and a mean breakfast sandwich, quadruples its business and staffs up with temporary baristas. But owner Randy Winzler says the past months have presented so many hardships that not having the fest doesn’t feel quite as ruinous.

“Any other year, it would be devastating to not have Sundance. When you account for the pandemic, it doesn’t seem as dramatic an issue,” he says. “We’ll be OK. We’ve been holding on for dear life all year. At this point, it’s just one more thing.”

Business owners in Park City may be able to write off a slow 2021 ski season, absent one of the biggest film festivals, because of the pandemic. But they are concerned that this year’s virtual Sundance may become the standard rather than the exception. Now, filmgoers can attend screenings at local drive-in theaters and independent art-house cinemas in New York, Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas and more. Thousands of others will tune in to digital premieres online, sticking around after the show for live Q&As with key talent behind the year’s biggest films. If Sundance can successfully expand beyond Park City, will people still spend thousands of dollars on flights, hotels and car services to trek to the mountains?

“I think this portends to the future of what Sundance could become,” says Bill White, who operates several independent restaurants in Park City, including Chimayo, Grappa and Sushi Blue. “We recognize the value of Sundance. It will hurt the town not having it.”

As the owner of Atticus, Winzler has been in Park City for 11 iterations of Sundance. It’s always a stressful time, to be sure, but he also finds it exhilarating to bond with his team as they endure the chaos. It’s become a tradition he didn’t know he’d miss until it threatened to disappear. “This is going to have a huge impact on sponsors and everyone who travels to Park City for Sundance,” he says. “If companies realize they don’t have to go to Park City, it could have a long-term effect more than just this year.”

Beerman has heard those kinds of complaints, and he’s not buying them. He notes that Sundance has a contract with Park City to continue operating the festival through 2026 and says the nonprofit has taken an active role in helping the community develop an arts and culture district where it plans to move its headquarters. Those are signs, he argues, that Sundance isn’t ready to decamp from the mountain town. Plus, he says that the press conferences and screenings, as well as the networking opportunities, coffees with fellow artists, and parties can’t happen in the same way online.

“That’s why people love Sundance, and that can’t be replicated digitally,” he says. “They may change things, and they may try to figure out how to do more virtually, but the festival isn’t going away.”

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