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Sundance Film Festival broke records going virtual. Here's what that meant for Park City


Sundance Film Festival broke records going virtual. Here's what that meant for Park City

By Carter Williams, | Posted - Feb. 10, 2021 at 10:44 a.m.

PARK CITY — Going online and screening in-person movies in 20 different locations across the country led to record Sundance Film Festival attendance, Sundance Institute officials said earlier this week.

In all, it's estimated there were over 600,000 audience views of the 73 feature and 50 short films, as well as other events between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3. It was a 168% increase in viewership from last year, when films — as normal — were screened largely in Park City and other Utah sites, the institute reported Monday.

The feature and short films resulted in 251,331 views alone watched through online platforms or TV apps. With the estimation that the average household view included a second individual watching, it's believed there were over 500,000 views from the 123 total films.

The festival received audiences from more than 120 countries and territories across the globe and from all 50 states in the U.S. Individuals from the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands also logged on to view Sundance movies this year.

But what did the festival's virtual audience success mean for Park City? The Sundance Film Festival brought Utah $177 million in tourism revenue last year, University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute officials documented in its yearly report on the state's tourism economy.

The 2020 festival was one of the final big events in Utah before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the state. It's still not known how a virtual festival this year will impact the 2021 tourism numbers.

As big of a draw as it is, Gardner Policy Institute data show it still isn't as impactful overall as the snow tourism sector. Skiing and snowboarding from the 2019-20 snow season reeled in an estimated $1.55 billion and was poised to be the best year on record until resorts were shut down in March due to the coronavirus.

Park City Chamber of Commerce officials told KSL TV that the regular 40,000 visitors the festival would draw were made back by visitors flocking to resorts for skiing and snowboarding this year. Hotels and resorts in the area also reported similar experiences as tourism is slowly rebuilding from the effects of COVID-19.

Matt Houchens, who works at Gorsuch ski shop on Main Street, said that aside from traffic backups throughout the festival's duration, that he didn't notice a significant drop in business from the festival going online this year. For him, it would be a completely different story if resorts were still closed.

That said, some of the local restaurants and small businesses in Park City did notice the impact of a digital Sundance. Ashley Brinkerhoff, a supervisor at one of the cafes in the small city, said it was "very sad" to compare business during Sundance in 2020 and 2021.

Restaurants and shops in the area are also at reduced capacity due to guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

"It's almost not even comparable because with Sundance, we were just slammed," she said. "We couldn't even — we didn't have any time for even a break. There were just people constantly. Now, it's like we're lucky to have it full or a rush for more than an hour."

Brinkerhoff added that lines outside of doors that might be visible are a result of the reduced capacity and less about the number of customers pre-pandemic.

Local businesses and tourism leaders in the area still hope the Sundance Film Festival will return to screening movies in Park City next year. Employees at the harder-hit restaurants and cafes also hope the pandemic will end sooner than later so they can return to normal business.

"My hopes are that it will open back up and everything will be good again," Brinkerhoff said. "Will it happen? I guess time will tell."

Contributing: Morgan Wolfe, KSL TV

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