A Sundance Education: 5 Lessons Learned

Natalie Qasabian here, SCA alum class of 2014 and newcomer to the Sundance Film Festival.

This year, I was lucky enough to make my way to Sundance with Electric City Entertainment, the production company behind Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines, and most recently Mississippi Grind, which premiered Saturday January 24th at Eccles Theater. I’ve been production coordinating for the company on their documentaries since July and was ecstatic when asked to ride along during Sundance.

Since I’ve been lucky enough to come to the festival in conjunction with a film and with some amazing producers and executives who are all Park City veterans, I was able to avoid a huge number of amateur mistakes during my festival experience. Inevitably, I still had a couple of “oops” moments. So whether you’re a newbie or a veteran coming to Sundance, hopefully there’s a lesson or two in here that you’ll find helpful (or, at the very least, entertaining).

LESSON #1: You Never Know Who is Behind You
HOW I LEARNED: The Hard Way
After any screening, and especially on the opening night of a film where executives, buyers, and the filmmakers themselves are present, if someone asks you, “So what did you think?” near the theater, answer very, very quietly.

After The Bronze premiered Thursday night at Eccles, an agent friend of my boss asked me the expected, “What did you think?” I responded animatedly, but was quick to remark what I didn’t love about the film – apparently way too loudly. I was immediately shushed by my boss who was quick to point out one of the producers standing right behind me. Lucky for me he didn’t hear (or at least acted like he didn’t), but anyways, critique with caution!

LESSON #2: RSVP RSVP RSVP
HOW I LEARNED: The Easy way
RSVP for every party you can get a link or an invite to. If you know anyone in the industry and can get your hands on to the coveted party / event grid, I have three words for you: RSVP, RSVP, RSVP. As much as you plan at Sundance, things will shift and change when you get here. Get on all the lists, regardless of it clashing with other plans or parties. You never know where you’ll end up, so play it safe and RSVP for everything.

I thought I’d be working all night on Saturday (the premiere day for Mississippi Grind) only to find myself relieved of Electric City obligations around 10:30pm. My first thought was,
“good thing the Trojan family takes care of their own.” Sev Ohanian (Producer of Results, which was in Competition this year at Sundance) offered me some Sundance event wisdom and helped me get on some exciting lists this year; one of which was James Franco’s Saturday night party hosted by The Art of Elysium and Black Label Media in Deer Valley.

Sev Ohanian @SevOhanian · 6h6 hours ago
Props to @TheArtofElysium and @BlackLabelMedia for hosting the coolest party at #Sundance last night. The smores were off the hook.

LESSON #3: Falling
HOW I LEARNED: The Hard Way
You will fall. Accept it. If it happens at the start, hey, at least you get it over with. If you should fall particularly hard, there is a clinic on 1665 Bonanza Dr. Park City, Utah 84068.

Unluckily for me, I learned this one the hard way on day 1 of my festival experience. At around 6pm I took a nasty fall on some undetectable black ice leaving my right wrist sprained. The positive in this, and my lesson learned was that a sprained wrist clad with a black splint makes a good icebreaker during interactions with new people.

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LESSON #4 – Network / Mingle First, Movies Later
HOW I LEARNED: The easy way
The first weekend of Sundance is when the important events and parties happen. Plan on attending as many as possible during those first couple days. Don’t be heartbroken about not getting into premieres the first weekend. By week B, or the halfway mark of Sundance, tickets to films become way easier to score. Maximize your time by networking and attending the important parties first, catching films second.

If you’re at the festival with credentials or know someone with them, get your tickets at Festival Headquarters. Festival HQ opens at 8am (line up at 7:45am to get a better spot) and you can score tickets for the same day or the next day. Planning ahead and buying for the next day is the best way to ensure you’ll get to see what you want.

I learned this one the easy way courtesy of my bosses and Trojan friends who were quick to share this advice. Standing at line at HQ is also a great place to meet people and network!

LESSON #5 – Getting Around
HOW I LEARNED: The hard way
Avoid Main Street with a car especially after the sun goes down. Main Street is less than a mile long, but it can take you 20 minutes to drive through during certain hours, especially during week 1. If you have a car, buy a parking spot in advance and navigate the back roads to get there. Park it and walk – it’s the best way to get somewhere.

I learned this one the hard way one day 1 when I was supposed to pick up someone on Main Street. I quickly learned that “pick me up on main” is code for find a back road that leads close by.

If you don’t have a car, Sundance has a great free shuttle system that will get you to all the theaters and to Main Street. Just make sure to plan ahead and budget enough time to get to screenings. You want to be between 15 to 45 minutes early too to ensure a seat.

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