Utah: Sun, snow and Sundance

By James Robinson

James Robinson goes on a fruitless celeb hunt at the Sundance Film Festival.

Park City, Utah, during the annual Sundance Film Festival.
Park City, Utah, during the annual Sundance Film Festival.

Enjoying any holiday is a delicate mediation between expectation and reality.

In the build-up to my departure I had read often about how the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, was where the dour everyman - such as myself - could go to interact with the glamour of Hollywood. This might have made me a bit too eager.

As I stood at the baggage carousel in the Salt Lake City airport a large crowd was forming, complete with welcome signs. Immediately I reckoned this to be a Hollywood welcome wagon and that a recognisable name must be imminent.

It transpired that the signs were welcoming home "Elder Jared". It was a group of Latter Days Saints celebrating the return of a Mormon missionary. Jared arrived about the same time as my suitcase, to a rock star's reception.

I was set, media accreditation at the ready, to be one of the 45,000 people who come for Sundance each January and cram into Park City, a town with a year-round population of about 8000 that sits 50km east of Salt Lake City.

Arriving in Utah, coyly positioned in the American Northwest between Colorado and Nevada, is a surprising treat. The state, on average, sits at 1900m above sea level. As you descend into Salt Lake City, the horizon is peppered with looming mountains, lumbering in the distance like dinosaurs.

The drive through and up to Park City takes about 30 minutes, scything through snowcapped peaks that tower above the road.

Park City is a reformed mining town remade as a place of recreation. It stretches out through the mountains, framed by skifields that sit a short walk from the main streets.

Its most visible industry is hospitality. There was a prevailing pleasantness in the air as soon as I exited my rental car, even if the impending festival seemed to have injected a slight mania into people.

The festival starts on a Thursday and by Friday night Main St in Park City is jammed. The footpaths are choked with out-of-towners in spotless winter gear. Local families have come out to try to spy a star.

Any public venue is choked with people and anywhere else is booked out for corporate events.

The first thing to keep in mind when considering a visit to Sundance is that the barriers of entry to enjoying the festival are low. From September of the previous year, tickets can be bought online, from a package of 20 tickets to complete and exhaustive access.

Leftover tickets from these sales can be bought at the start of the festival.

Tickets for each screening are on sale on the morning of each show and you can turn up two hours before any film and wait-list for a ticket. This can get you access to even the most in-demand films. Each ticket costs $15, no more than at your local cinema.

Despite this come-one, come-all philosophy, during Sundance, Park City is an expensive place to find accommodation.

Even the most meagre hotel rooms retail at several hundred dollars for a night. There are ski chalets and houses galore to rent, if you're ahead of the game and have a group to split the cost.

I chose instead to commute each day from Salt Lake City. The short drive was worth the savings.

The early days of the festival held a lesson for me, in terms of tempering my own star-struck expectations.

When you imagine the Sundance Film Festival taking place in a town of 8000 it's easy to think there's no way you won't run in to Nicole Kidman in line for coffee.

But the reality is a little different. Park City is like New Zealand's Arrowtown on steroids. Main St is its small and compact heart. But from this, a larger exoskeleton of a city sprawls outwards for more than 4km. The festival schedule is spread over a dozen different locations. Daily star-spotting walks around Main St were most often fruitless.

I spotted Arrested Development and Superbad star Michael Cera in line for a bar. His presence prompted one man to yell out erroneously, "It's that guy from the Facebook movie!"

Getting coffee at the Park City Marriott each day, I began running into festival judge and actor-director-screenwriter Edward Burns. His face became an avatar of disappointment for all the proper celebrities I wasn't seeing.

Stars are shipped into Park City for Sundance mostly to attend the premiere screening of their movie. These stars are stage-managed symbols used to inflate the film's hype and lure executives into buying the movie for distribution.

In the middle of a regularly severe winter, with temperatures barely above freezing, red carpets run very differently from what any seasoned Oscars-watcher is trained to expect.

A tent is set up outside each cinema and a movie's cast is driven to the door and placed in front of journalists and photographers.

From there, they are shuttled to their seats at the back of the cinema after everyone else, and brought in front of the audience at the film's conclusion.

So the odds of an organic run-in with any major Hollywood figure are small. But then each day as I returned to my accommodation in Salt Lake City and scrolled through the mass of Park City celebrity photos - Alicia Keys! Steve Carell! Ashton Kutcher! Reese Witherspoon! - I was still struck by the vaguest of notions that maybe I was doing it wrong. They were evidently out there somewhere.

What interaction I had with the stars - Q&As, the odd red carpet sighting - were performances in their own right and not quite the live action, stars-in-the-wild stage show I'd been craving.

Most films premiere within the first four days of the festival and by the middle of the second week, Main St and the respective Park City arenas returned to being only mildly busy.

Absence of new Hollywood friends aside, it's hard to fault Park City. With movie-watching and paparazzo obligations falling away, I chose to soak up the town and observe the mechanisms of Hollywood.

Despite the bracing cold, the weather was perfect. As long as you dressed for it, the air held a refreshing clarity. The mash of remaining executives, journalists and publicists networked with friendly aggression, keeping the films at a jaded distance.

The final Saturday, access to the closing ceremony party was a hot item. Some were selling their tickets, handed out free to requisite pass holders, for as much as $250. I chose to hold on to my mine.

As the doors opened to the public I came across a gaggle of recognisable actors and directors flying in the opposite direction, headed for the exits.

They wanted out just as the public wanted in, presumably for a chance to fawn. I'd had 11 days to get accustomed to this dynamic. I shrugged and headed for the bar to turn in one of my drink tokens in exchange for a beer.

There by the bar, of course, was Edward Burns.

The next Sundance Film Festival takes place in Utah January 22-February 1, 2015.

- Herald on Sunday

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