A short list of things I expected from the Sundance Film Festival:
• Celebrity sightings
• Real Housewives of Salt Lake City sightings (a different thing entirely)
• Getting turned away at events
• Hollywood backpattery
• A free tote bag
• At least one movie that will stay in my top five of 2023 until the end of the year
•At least two movies that will not
• Ben Platt
Some things I did not expect:
• Police drama on a state and federal level
And yet! My assignment for the day is to try and get into as many brand activations as possible. When you picture Sundance, Main Street is probably what you see. It’s that snowy ski-town avenue dotted with charming, colorful buildings, chief among them the historic Egyptian Theatre. What you maybe don’t see in your mind’s eye is around half of those charming buildings transformed into three-dimensional advertisements — festival sponsor spaces competing for attention via freebies, DJs, and schticks.
Meredith Marks and (More) Cannibalism
One such space is the Vulture Spot. At every in-person Sundance, Vulture runs what basically amounts to a temp employment agency for our favorite comedians, who tape interviews with directors and their casts. This year, the Spot is hosted by Jared Goldstein and sponsored by the Showtime series Yellowjackets, so the lodge-themed space is littered with spooky details like a beat-up letterman jacket and a Ouija board. There’s also a Yellowjackets-themed breakfast spread, meaning I have now encountered cannibalism-adjacent content on two out of two days so far. The food itself is, thankfully, mostly pastries.
Next is Meredith Marks’s boutique, which is actually a fixture of the town and not a pop-up. Made famous by The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, Meredith’s eponymous brand sells loungewear, merch referring to her enemy Lisa Barlow’s claims that she’s slept with half of New York, and tracksuits designed by her son, Brooks. The first shock here is seeing a ribbon, affixed to a hot-pink Christmas wreath on the door, claiming the business won a Park City historical preservation award. The second shock is seeing Meredith Marks. She’s talking with an actual customer in the back, so I stop obnoxiously taking selfies with her wares and tiptoe out before she gets annoyed.
Next is the Canada Goose store, where lots of people are posing with a large Canada Goose logo, dressed in their Canada Geese. If Main Street is the first thing I picture when I think of Sundance, this ouroboros experience of Canada Goose eating its own tail feathers is second. Has Canada Goose ever had better press than paparazzi photos of celebrities in winter? And has there ever existed a more surefire source of celebrities in winter than Sundance? No. See? Ourobogoose.
Later, I come to the Stanley cabin, where they confiscate your water before entering but then give you a newer, fancier water bottle the minute you cross through the door. I am told that if I want the full Sundance experience, however, I should visit a gifting suite. A rep invites me to one, tells me that Will Forte is very nice and that I just missed Emilia Clarke. I head on over. Finally! After a day full of normie stuff, a real celebrity experience — the kind so fancy I get turned away from it the first time even though I’m on the list, probably because I look haggard and wind-bitten and the male-model door guy is confused! Exclusivity! When I finally get in, the rep insists on hooking me up with a pair of new boots; upon seeing the boots, I insist that my carry-on luggage is full-but-thank-you-so-much-really. (Picture Ugg-type things with decorative tufts of what can only be described as Troll doll hair.) I wonder which ones Will Forte chose.
The White Claw Police
Next, I’m drawn to a giant black-and-white façade that sticks out like a sore thumb amid the rugged Western store fronts of Main Street: It’s the White Claw Surf Lodge. My name should be on the list, but when I show up, the bouncers (two tiny blonde women) are not letting anyone in. I hear gossip that the bar was closed because Utah state police shut it down. Blah blah alcohol laws, I’m told by a very knowledgeable colleague, who I know is very knowledgeable because he was invited to Diplo at the TAO pop-up and I haven’t even heard of the TAO pop-up. The White Claw bar getting raided like it’s Prohibition really highlights the tension between a glitzy Hollywood festival and a state whose laws are voted on by Mormons.
Aura Cleansing With Rupi Kaur
Surrounded by beautiful nature and an abundance of film artistry, I realize I’ve instead spent my whole day standing around in event spaces looking at logos and sometimes getting a free coffee for my efforts. I missed the latte-art class at Stanley because it was too crowded and didn’t get my aura read at the Chase Sapphire Lounge because the line wasn’t moving. These events are designed as a sort of agreed-upon exchange between brands and visitors, where they’ll give you somewhere warm to duck into and a time-filler between movies; they’re commercial breaks. You can’t fill a whole day with commercials. I need something at Sundance to uplift my soul, to turn my (self-diagnosed) aura from gray to sunshiny yellow. I need … a Stacy’s Pita Chips crossover event with the poet Rupi Kaur.
The event is in honor of a Stacy’s Pita Chips “short film” about women business owners, for which Kaur — the superstar Instagram poet who defined a certain type of 2010s feminist aesthetic with writing that her own Wikipedia page calls “simplistic” — composed new bars. Koans fill the space: on the backs of employees’ sweaters, on the walls, on the floor. They say things like “WE WILL GROW LIKE SEEDS” and “AND FOR ALL THE TABLES THAT REFUSE TO SIT US, WE’LL BUILD NEW TABLES AND PULL UP A SEAT FOR EVERYONE WHO ARRIVES AFTER US.” The whole place is bright yellow — ideal aura yellow — and I read a wall decal informing me that Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, produced the project. It all clicks into place. A server passes around little cups of garlic dip with a single Stacy’s pita chip inside.
Kaur and the short film’s director, Late Night’s Nisha Ganatra, both tell me they “never” thought they’d do branded. But when Kaur talks about her pita-chip poetry, she gets emotional to the point of tears, calling the project “inspiring” and looking deep into Ganatra’s eyes and telling her, “Whenever I see your name in the credits, I’m in awe, because you represent hope and dreams to me.” I want to tell Ganatra that’s how I felt when I learned she wrote Cheetah Girls 3, but there are three different brand reps for Stacy’s Pita Chips watching us like hawks and I don’t want to go off track.
The Mr. and Mrs. Smith Guy’s Documentary
Throughout the day, I ask people what they’re most excited to see and many name Pod Generation, Cassandro, Polite Society, and Theater Camp. Conversely, I run into colleagues who feel like they’ve “been through hell” after a three-hour documentary about Brooke Shields that “didn’t go anywhere.” After a long day engaging with brand stories up and down a single street, I too feel like I haven’t gone anywhere. Specifically, I still haven’t gone to a single film. So I go to maybe the buzziest premiere so far.
On the opening day of Sundance, long after the festival lineup seemed locked in place and the schedules were printed, a new, secretive project appeared on the calendar. It was Doug Liman’s debut documentary, Justice, about the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The film won’t be shown in its final form; producers are still uncovering new material. The entrance to the premiere is teeming with police and a bomb-sniffing dog. I am excited because the guy who made Jumper and Mr. and Mrs. Smith has now made a serious documentary about sexual assault and that’s fascinating. But the documentary has no single major new revelation besides a tape made by attorney and CEO Max Stier alleging he bore witness to Brett sexually assaulting more than one inebriated woman at Yale. (Stier’s allegations were already known, but the tape is new.) The film is mostly an exhaustingly detailed argument that, yes, Kavanaugh probably committed perjury in his hearings, and yes, the FBI did not seem to adequately investigate some damning evidence.
I leave the screening and go to an after-party for a movie I didn’t see, where I run into a friend I’ve only ever met online, and his friend, another veteran of the Brooke Shields Cinematic Experience. “It’s so long,” he says. “There should have been a warning.”
Tomorrow: red carpets, celebrity chefs, and Cousin Greg.
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