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Press Pass: What it was like behind the scenes at the Sundance Film Festival

The streets of Park City, Utah are packed with celebrities, emerging artists and spectators soaking in the excitement of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

By Kristin Snyder

January 30, 2020 6:07 pm

Every year, celebrities and budding filmmakers alike descend upon the ski town of Park City, Utah for 11 days of film screenings, panels and parties.

I applied for press passes for the Sundance Film Festival back in the fall, despite assuming we would get turned down. But in an unexpected turn of events, we were approved, and assistant Photo editor Niveda Tennety and I prepared to spend a few days in the snow.

A few celebrity sightings added some spice to the chilly walks. We saw Stanley Tucci standing above a screaming crowd on a balcony, Will Ferrell rolled down his window to wave at us from a passing car and Kerry Washington walked right past me. I felt the most starstruck, however, when Niveda pointed out that Ben Whishaw – who voiced Paddington in the critically acclaimed movies – was sitting a few tables away from us in a coffee shop.

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Will Ferrell rolled down his window to wave at a crowd of fans while driving on Main Street. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

A-list celebrities walked around trying to pretend as if they weren’t famous, while budding filmmakers longed for just a hint of that recognition while out and about. For the most part, however, I was much more concerned with avoiding the crowds of people desperately waiting for a glimpse of someone famous.

Main Street – where the majority of the events took place, and where one was very likely to run into a well-known celebrity – was typically a wall of large black cars transporting the talent from one location to the next.

A number of Park City residents had informed us that Sundance visitors weren’t like other tourists: They walk around like they own the city.

Just walking the streets made that evident – people ran into oncoming traffic to cross the streets, with orange-clad Sundance volunteers yelling at them to stop. Park City’s free bus and shuttle system was also clearly overwhelmed, and turning to the bus for a reprieve from the cold often meant rubbing shoulders with a number of strangers.

But the busy streets and cold weather were worth it for what was a surreal, if exhausting, weekend.

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A Southern California native, Park City's chilly temperatures were a bit of a shock. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

Day One:

Upon landing in Salt Lake City with hours to spare before checking into our Airbnb, we loitered in a Starbucks just outside the airport and worked on our coverage plans for the next few days. With only a short trip, we knew we had to make the most out of every day.

Finally leaving for our Airbnb in Kamas – about 20 minutes outside Park City – neither of us could tear our eyes from the snow-covered mountains surrounding us. After all, it was a stark contrast from the perpetually sunny weather in Los Angeles.

Upon arriving in Park City, we went to pick up our press passes, only to discover they had momentarily lost mine and Niveda was given a different type of pass.

[Related: Press Pass: While tiring, covering Coachella proves memorable for Daily Bruin’s A&E editor]

I was given a working press pass, which allowed me access to press lines, certain venues and the ability to queue up for press and industry screenings. Niveda, on the other hand, had a photo tag, meaning she was able to accompany me to press lines and to shoot panels. We tried to guilt them into upgrading her pass, but they were firmly against the idea.

The first day was mostly spent getting a feel of the town before the majority of the crowds descended, but around 8:30 p.m., we made our way to the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Park City, where the press and industry screening of “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” was being held. I was finally let into the converted ballroom at 9:25 p.m., and got to watch my first film.

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Films were screened throughout the entire festival at a number of theaters throughout Park City. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

Day Two:

After accidentally oversleeping by an hour, we eventually made our way into Park City for what we thought was a press line for “The Assistant.” Turns out, I had gotten my times mixed up, and it was only a screening, so while I sat in the theater, Niveda went to Main Street to talk to some local business owners about the festival.

Following the screening, I returned to Main Street for a screening and Q&A of Olivia Wilde’s short film, where she ended up sitting right in front of me. Most of the day, however, was spent talking to Park City residents and wandering the streets.

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A number of Sundance volunteers were placed at intersections to guide both car and pedestrian traffic. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

Day Three:

By far the most hectic day of the trip was day three, when I felt like I had finally gotten into the groove of Sundance – just in time for our first press line for the film “Shirley.”

At first, I stood by Niveda and watched the people make their way down the small carpet. But after a few minutes, I got over my nerves and went over to where a majority of the interviews were occurring.

Armed with only my phone to record quotes, I was surrounded by much more professional-looking reporters filming their interviews with microphones. My nerves peaked as I interviewed Logan Lerman – who I was mildly obsessed with in the fifth grade – but overall the first press line was a success.

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Logan Lerman attended the premier of "Shirley," a film fictionalizing the life of horror writer Shirley Jackson. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

The rest of the afternoon was spent running from different panels and stores, and we barely had time to stop for food throughout the day.

We eventually made our way to the Library Center Theatre, tired out of our minds, and lined up outside for “The Nowhere Inn” press line. It was evident that the press coverage of the event would be limited, as there were only two other people waiting with us.

Once the press line got started, however, my nerves disappeared, and I happened to speak with two alumni who were excited at the prospect of the Daily Bruin covering the festival. The night ended on a high note: speaking with Carrie Brownstein and St. Vincent.

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Singer St. Vincent and actress Carrie Brownstein attended the premier of "The Nowhere Inn," a mockumentary style film about their friendship. (Niveda Tennety/Assistant Photo editor)

The high of the press line could only last so long, however, as we had to hurry back to our Airbnb and then to the airport. We loitered in the Salt Lake City airport for hours, laughing over nothing in a near-delirious exhaustion. Finally getting to sleep on the plane – after being awake for the better part of 24 hours – felt like bliss.

Returning to LA felt like a harsh wake-up call, as we were no longer surrounded by fresh snow and excited crowds.

Now, we just have to get down to business and put together the stories, but I’ll never forget those three hectic days, or the back of Olivia Wilde’s glorious head.

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Kristin Snyder | Podcast producer
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
Snyder is the Arts & Entertainment editor. She was previously the Theater|Film|Television editor.
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