Getaways: Sundancing

An insider's guide to enjoying the country's top independent film festival.

January 2009

We've been in Park City, Utah, less than three hours before our first celebrity sighting. Adrian Grenier, the actor who became famous for playing Vincent Chase on the HBO series Entourage, is having a quiet dinner in the back corner of 350 Main Brasserie, and everyone at my table agrees: His life seems way more glamorous on TV. We keep looking over at him, half-expecting something outrageous to happen; it doesn't. Still, we're all a little starstruck.

Which isn't surprising considering we mountain-states folk don't often get to hobnob with celebrities in real life. But for two weeks every January, Hollywood dusts off its cowboy boots and puffy North Face jackets when the Sundance Film Festival takes over this tiny Utah ski town. And, not unlike the elk in Estes Park during rutting season, herds of celebs parade up and down the streets for the viewing pleasure of locals and tourists alike.

Of course, Robert Redford would be horrified at the suggestion that stargazing is the only reason to head to Park City for his legendary festival. Redford founded Sundance 25 years ago as a way to showcase independent films. Today, the annual fete has become the granddaddy of all film fests, giving life to directors such as Quentin Tarantino and flicks like Little Miss Sunshine. Make no mistake, Sundance is about the movies.

But if you know how to work the festival (like, say, a local would) you can catch excellent films and still find time to explore Park City. After all, you're not going to want to spend too much time in a dark theater when there are three world-class ski resorts and a lovely downtown to explore.

Park City's snowy streets won't see a celebrity footprint until January 15, but Sundance was penciled in on Hollywood's calendar long before tickets went on sale last November. Tickets to the festival's buzz-worthy opening nights have been sold out for weeks, as have the coveted $3,000 all-access passes.

That doesn't mean entrée into festival events is a lost cause. In fact, Sundance isn't nearly as exclusive as most people think. Over the course of the two-week event, there are more than 120 feature-length films screened to audiences totaling nearly 50,000. And with tickets hovering around $15, price isn't a limiting factor. The key to getting into the movies is all in the strategy.

The bulk of celebs and industry people show up on week one. Which means you should book your trip to Park City for the second week of the festival. That week there are fewer crowds competing for seats to the same movies. Sure, you might miss running into superstars like Brad Pitt at the bar, but unlike celebrities, the directors and producers stay in town the whole time, attending all the screenings and sticking around for Q-and-A sessions after the movies. Their behind-the-scenes anecdotes are arguably the best part of the entire Sundance experience.

To gain admittance to the movies you want to see, it's wise to employ the early-bird theory. While the rest of Sundance sleeps off its hangover, you can score huevos rancheros at the Eating Establishment and then head for the less-crowded morning screenings. Instead of sitting through previews, though, you'll get to hear from the filmmakers after the movie ends. And the best part, of course, is that you're out of the movie in time to take some afternoon turns on the slopes before heading back out for a night on the town.

Your surest bet for tickets at this late date is the so-called "open tickets," which are readily available online or at the Park City box office (136 Heber Ave.) for up to two hours before each screening. Or, try your luck with "waitlist" tickets: Queue up outside the venue two hours before a sold-out movie, and if there are any no-shows, you're in.

Gaining admittance to one of the highly sought-after flicks may take some luck, which is why we recommend taking your chances with offbeat, lesser-known films. But if you don't want to miss the real gems of Sundance, buy tickets to the award- winners, which are shown on the last couple days of the festival. These are the movies that have been vetted by judges and audiences and will be on their way to national cineplexes in the coming months.