2021 Sundance Film Fest screenings coming to Denver's Sie FilmCenter

Cinephiles, rejoice, for the Sundance Film Festival is coming to Denver next week.

Last year’s version of the independent-film whirlwind in Park City, Utah, ran Jan. 23 through Feb. 2, just before coronavirus arrived — and maybe not even then, according to attendees who reported serious illnesses after returning. That prompted The Hollywood Reporter and others to call it a “petri dish” for early COVID-19 infection.

This year’s event, which runs Thursday, Jan. 28, through Wednesday, Feb. 3, is mostly (and necessarily) virtual, which means the public can safely get in on more of the screenings than ever before. But titles won’t just stream online, Sundance officials said last year when announcing an expansion.

If you go

2021 Sundance Film Festival. Virtual festival with private, in-person screenings available, Jan. 29-Feb. 3 at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 E. Colfax Ave. $600 per group, 10 people maximum, for a private screening (or $60 per person). festival.sundance.org and denverfilm.org for details, in-person safety guidelines.

For the first time in the festival’s 43-year history, Sundance will produce satellite screenings of titles in festival competition at 20 partner locations throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. That incudes Denver Film’s Sie FilmCenter, which has been closed to the public for much of the last 12 months, but also indie exhibitors in Columbus, Ohio; Key West, Fla.; and Tulsa, Okla. They’ll be showing the films in-person at the same time they premiere globally online.

The 12 films that will screen at the Sie FilmCenter have been curated specifically for the Denver market from the festival’s roughly 80 offerings, said Matthew Campbell, artistic director of Denver Film. Screenings will be available only as private bookings, however, following Denver Film’s recent model for its theater as a private indoor space.

Screenings can include up to 10 people and cost $600 each, officials said — or $60 per person in a full group. Titles that are still available include “Jockey,” “The Pink Cloud,” “Sabaya,” “Bring Your Own Brigade,” “Cusp,” “Jockey” and “All Light, Everywhere.” As of press time, Jan. 29’s “How It Ends” and Jan. 30’s “El Planeta” had sold out.

“It would be nice if we could have single tickets, and not have it as price-prohibitive as it can seem, but in this reality it’s just not the way we’re able to operate,” said Campbell, who helped produce a nearly all-virtual Denver International Film Fest in 2020. “Being able to have the flexibility to do this keeps us from becoming stagnant. Even as exhibitors, it’s a way for us to be reactive to the circumstances.”

Other movie exhibitors that have opened recently under Colorado’s amended Level Orange guidelines include Landmark’s Mayan Theatre and select locations of Harkins, Cinemark, AMC and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.

Spending money on an in-person film experience should be special, said Keith Garcia, artistic director of the Sie FilmCenter. That’s part of why costs are what they are — about twice a normal rental rate — but they include the prestige of being one of a handful of people in the world to see that film premiere on the big screen.

“Sundance is where films begin, with the festival always having led the film year under normal circumstances,” Garcia said. “But it’s always had that destination element. When they decided they couldn’t invite people out to Park City en masse, we were lucky to be on their radar as a partner organization. This is meant to be a special, VIP experience, because Sundance isn’t your typical film festival.”

Having screenings in-person at the national level is meant to keep the festival relevant in an otherwise off year. But the satellite program also will benefit nearly two dozen independent U.S. exhibitors during a painful time. That’s good for both them and Sundance, which relies on a savvy, arthouse-invested audience (and the industry that feeds it).

The cost may look prohibitive, but there are perks for those who can afford it: a private, professional movie screen for people in your quarantine pod; popcorn and drinks included; bragging rights; and the experience of being in a theater with other people, which is central to Denver Film’s community-based mission.

“These last few months of purgatory have been tough, because if we (reopened fully) we might not be able to control the environment to make people feel comfortable enough to come back,” Campbell said. “With this Sundance partnership, we’ve found some middle ground.”

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