How to get ready for Sundance

It’s that weekend – no, not the 3-day Martin Luther King holiday. It’s the weekend before Sundance starts.

Which means that, like most film journalists who are traveling to Park City, Utah, this week, I’ve got to figure out which movies I’m going to see while I’m there. So many movies, so little time.

And that brings us to the question: When there’s a festival full of unknown movies, how do you figure out what to see? It depends, of course, on what you’re looking for.

Perhaps you want to indulge in only foreign films. Or documentaries. Or just the films in the various competitions. There are plenty to choose from.

I’m aware that the whole ticketing process is a rigorous one and you’ve probably already figured out what you’re going to see. But if you’re feeling lucky, if you’re going to go the wait-list route and need to figure out which films to invest that kind of time in, here are some tips on how to try to preprogram your festival.

Start with a legal pad; one sheet for each day you’re going to be there. Break it up into two-hour modules.

Then start reading the catalog (or, more realistically, the online film guide). Start with the director and cast: Any names you recognize? Fine – figure out when it’s showing and put it into your schedule. Make note not just of what time and where it’s showing but also its running time – since that can impact your next choice.

You’ll end up with way more than you have time for. But if one doesn’t work out, you have a quick and easily referenced guide to what else is available at the same time.

Not seeing any names you recognize? That’s common with Sundance, which specializes in spotlighting new discoveries. Well, does the title grab you? How about the capsule description of the film? You can usually figure out whether or not something sounds interesting. After you’ve been attending for a few years, you begin to understand the code words in the program capsules: which ones actually mean “slow and dreary,” which ones mean “wild action but not much plot,” which ones mean “a director who tends to overshare.” You’ll get the hang of it.

Then get there early, have patience – and talk to the people who are standing in line next to you. You never know which gem you might hear about from a casual encounter with a stranger. I’ve had plenty of great conversations that started with the question, “What have you seen that you liked?”

Oh yeah – and dress warm.

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