The peskily transmissible Omicron variant indeed stifled Sundance’s plans to hold an in-person festival in Utah for the first time since 2020. But it’s not accurate to say the 2022 festival was all-virtual. Their Satellite Screens initiative, a two-year-old partnership that pipes festival programming from this year’s edition directly into select art-house theaters nationwide, was unbowed by the latest tyrant from the Greek alphabet.
I was initially bummed to miss out on the fun in Park City due to a wedding I had to attend in Winston-Salem, NC. Yet, ironically, it is I who get to count myself among the few people in America who got to “attend” Sundance 2022 in a location other than their own home. Over the weekend, I caught four festival selections at local independently-owned arthouse theater a/perture cinema. It was among seven theaters chosen by Sundance to participate, from a roster of 107 applicants, thanks to a commitment to diversity, inclusion, and accessibility and its role in fostering a blossoming (but not yet fully established) cinema culture.
But my focus was less attuned to what played on screen as it was to everything happening outside the frame. It’s easy to feel like indie film is thriving on the ground at a festival like Sundance or living in a cultural hub like New York or Los Angeles. But are programs like Satellite Screens actually growing audiences and engaging communities for the medium in places without well-established arts infrastructure? Well … that depends on how you want to measure. Like any conversation about the future of movies, you can marshal data points for either case based on your vantage point.
Brenda Coughlin, Sundance Institute’s Director for Engagement and Advocacy, said they looked to see full houses as a quantitative measure of success for the program. Even with lower attendance caps in place at a/perture for safety precautions, however, the four screenings I attended were not at full capacity. There were many complicating factors, though, including a snow storm rolling through the region over the weekend and an omicron wave yet to peak in the state.
But going beyond quantity and looking at quality, the majority of viewers were staying through the credits and watching the pre-recorded Q&As. Many showed up for a post-show drinks event late on Friday night after Sirens, a film from the World Documentary competition about an all-female metal group in Lebanon. These weren’t just people who wanted the analog equivalent of commenting “FIRST!” on a social media post. They wanted deep, meaningful engagement with movies, and a/perture gave it to them.
From programming to presentation, the Satellite Screens program felt like something beyond ordinary moviegoing. A branded Sundance step-and-repeat backdrop adorned the lobby, and guests posed for professional pictures taken in front of it like VIPs. And what festival would be complete without a swag bag? This one, which the festival sent directly from Utah after they canceled their physical edition, included a Sundance 2022 water bottle and a copy of Filmmaker Magazine among the bounty. a/perture owner Lawren Desai noted that these physical tokens of appreciation of their attendance were a particular hit with the guests, making them feel just as special as anyone who made the trek to Park City.
As for the films themselves, several screenings featured were followed by Satellite Screen-specific Q&As moderated by venue owners and operators rather than Sundance programmers. a/perture also produced two specific post-show forums, pre-recorded virtually, with college students discussing their contemporaries on-screen in Emergency and North Carolina community organizers talking about the resonance of the documentary Free Chol Soo Lee.
These satellite festivalgoers were indeed going to THE movies, not just A movie. Several people I spoke to saw specific titles of interest in the lineup and knew they could see them virtually through Sundance’s screening platform. Clark Harper, who ended up seeing over half the lineup presented by a/perture, was drawn into the satellite screen when he heard about Sirens and made the active choice to see it even when there was another title playing directly opposite. “I considered watching Sirens virtually,” he admitted, “but knew the a/perture event would be a much better way to enjoy it.”
The program, curated by the festival in response to the articulated desires of the various theater operators in weekly calls, encouraged risk-taking and blind trust in curatorial discernment. Attendee Paula Traffas and others who spoke with me over the weekend admitted they might not have gone to see these movies during a normal theatrical run but trusted the Sundance name and a/perture’s guidance. It became the kind of thing that attendees were marking as a real event, the art-house world’s modest version of a Marvel tentpole.
The satellite screen experience fulfilled the traditional festival role of incubating conversation and community among strangers. During the final day, I witnessed a woman approach a seeming stranger sitting in front of her to say “you were sitting in front of me at yesterday’s movie” and compare opinions on the films they’d seen in the program. It was the kind of spontaneous interaction familiar to those who have endured freezing queues in a tent outside the Eccles Theater or other festival venues in Park City.
The flip side of that interaction, though, is that the satellite screen was drawing from a modest pool of returning guests who could recognize each other. The screenings that drew in a bigger, younger, and more eclectic crowd were the starrier selections of the program. The weekend’s one sellout was U.S. Competition title Alice, starring Keke Palmer, and among the four titles I was able to screen, the most crowded (and vocally enthusiastic) was for Premieres title Honk for Jesus. Save Your Souls, featuring Regina Hall and Sterling K. Brown. For that true spirit of festival discovery on titles without a flashy headliner, the crowd appeared to the naked eye a whiter, older, and slightly more affluent group.
The Satellite Screens booklet mentions the goal of “developing new audiences for independent film,” but the event appeared to be populated by the theater’s mainstay attendees. It’s still a positive force if the Satellite Screens program helped to reignite an existing audience for a/perture, especially given that older audiences have justifiably been among the most reluctant to return to theaters. But Sundance, like much of the independent cinema world, should examine if efforts to reach a more diverse audience are really just flattering the sensibilities of well-intentioned white audiences. On-screen representation alone may not diversify the crowd gathered in front of the screen.
If you build it, they won’t necessarily come — unless you ask them to and demonstrate why it’s worth their time. This is true not only of the Satellite Screens program but of Sundance’s virtual community-building efforts as well. The VR-friendly “Spaceship” breaks down barriers to make film conversation democratized and accessible, yet few users seemed equipped to take advantage of the platform. After Something in the Dirt filmmakers Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson put out a call that they would attend their film’s “party” in the Spaceship, I logged on to survey the scene. The filmmaking duo eagerly fielded questions for an hour from any festival passholder who entered their “chat zone,” but that group never amounted to more than a handful of people. I have to imagine if more people realized they could essentially have a private Q&A with the people behind a film, that number would have swelled significantly.
It is a confusing, overwhelming time to be a cinephile. Developments like the decline of the platform release to the shrinking theatrical window have given movie lovers a glut of choices with scant guidance to navigate the abundance. We’re on the cusp of a great upheaval that promises democratized access to movies and the talent behind them. But until the dust settles, people seem tentative both about embracing the new modes of experiential moviegoing as well as discarding the traditional ones. In a world that’s increasingly acculturated to on-demand viewing, these timebound experiences need to be creatively and forcefully messaged to maintain an audience – much less grow one.
The quality, care, and thoughtfulness of the Satellite Screens program were evident. Now it’s incumbent upon festivals and exhibitors alike to build on this strong foundation. They must make a persuasive case for why the collective experience of these titles far outweighs catching them as a tile swimming in a sea of options on a streaming platform in the months to come. Ingenuity and advocacy are necessary to ensure the art house is not just relegated to our own house.
Exhibition challenges will remain for the foreseeable future, but there are still signs of hope. Take one visitor who stumbled in right at showtime for Emergency. Bummed when Sundance shuttered its Utah-based operations in 2022, he decided to come check out a movie he was excited to experience on the big screen with a captivated crowd.That visitor? It didn’t hit the a/perture staff until after they checked his vaccination card: it was Emergency’s co-lead actor, Donald Elise Watkins, who grew up in the neighboring city of Greensboro. Like many things in pandemic-era moviegoing, the scale of his festival premiere experience was smaller than it might have been a few years ago. Yet that shared cinematic communion between artists and audiences managed to live on this year, just as it will in some way into the future.