Everyone's a paparazzo: The weird world of Sundance

The film festival in Park City is a bizarre clash of Hollywood moguls, indie artists and frenzied fans

Published January 17, 2014 5:24PM (EST)

When Robert Redford chose Park City as the site of the Sundance Film Festival, he wanted to "make it weird." Well, he overwhelmingly succeeded. Park City was a bustling mining town that had shrunk to around 8,000 people, nestled between three ski resorts (none of them are the Sundance Resort -- that one is about 30 miles away). It leans liberal (neighbors call it "Sin City”) in a state that's the home of Mitt Romney and Brigham Young University and weak beer. It sounds beautiful and it sort of is -- the mountains are magnificent, and their grandness would make you realize how insignificant humanity is by comparison ... if it weren't for the flat, squat brown buildings that stick out at the base of each mountain like dead weeds. As one bus driver said, "I know people pay a lot for these condos, but they are so ugly."

For 10 days in January, journalists, distributors, gawkers, financiers, film crews, directors, producers, film enthusiasts and the like invade the city, and its population swells by about 500 percent. The city does its best to service the horde, offering all bus transportation for free and providing heat lamps at major bus stops, but the logistics are still insane. In a small town, where natural space is abundant but human constructions are built seemingly haphazardly, it takes at least 20 minutes to get anywhere you want to go.

Ordinarily, that 20 minutes might not feel like a long time, but at Sundance, 20 minutes is enough to bring on an existential crisis. On one of my bus rides, three bubbly women were buzzing about the Michael Fassbender film “Frank.” While the offbeat comedy, featuring Fassbender as a comedian and musician who wears a papier mâché false head at all times, sounds compelling, the women wanted to see it for another reason: "Michael Fassbender. OMG Michael Fassbender. Because. Michael Fassbender."

... Did I mention Michael Fassbender?

At Sundance, a star’s name becomes some sort of mantra that lots of people repeat. If you're not a celebrity, you become paparazzi -- whether you want to be or not.

Of course, it’s impossible to go to even 10 percent of all 186 movies playing across nine theaters, but that doesn’t quell the feeling that you’re missing out on something huge. On my first flight, a woman talked loudly about Spike Jonze and confirmed, “Yeah, he's cool,” in case any of us were wondering.

Is this what Sundance is? A chance to see and be seen by Hollywood and media’s elite?

The festival started out as a community to attract and cultivate budding talent, tucked away in these quiet mountains and far from the political bullshit of Hollywood. But it’s successful, and Hollywood has long since discovered that and colonized it. The two cultures are not mutually exclusive, and of course they can and do go together -- every movie needs promotion and buzz. But they often clash, and as an attendee it can be tricky trying to figure out where you fit in along that spectrum and if you do at all. Perhaps that’s the consumerist culture that Mr. Redford (I have decided that Robert Redford is the kind of person you just have to refer to as “Mister,” if you are younger than 50) was criticizing in his recent Hollywood Reporter profile when he said, “It's no longer the place it was. I don't like what's happened.”

It’s undoubtedly exciting, but the constant frenzy over who is doing this and who is doing that is enough to make you relish the moments of normalcy, for there are so few. The best part of opening day was not when Mr. Redford spoke in the press conference, but when a bus driver entertained herself by pulling into empty stops, and, in as creepy a voice as she could muster, asked co-workers stationed there, “Do you want some candy?” Some people got the joke, but others didn’t. She laughed either way.

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Frank Hollywood Michael Fassbender Paparazzi Robert Redford Sundance 2014 Sundance Film Festival