Denver Film's Sie FilmCenter to host 2021 Sundance Film Fest premieres

Denver’s Sie FilmCenter will for the first time host screenings for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, organizers announced Wednesday, while the festival pivots to “meet audiences where they are” in the age of coronavirus.

Sundance, which typically draws thousands of artists and industry types to Park City, Utah, each winter for a market-driven bonanza of independent-film screenings, has been hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic as much as every other film festival. That forced organizers to rethink their offerings, which are typically in-person and at theaters.

“Even under these impossible circumstances, artists are still finding paths to make bold and vital work in whatever ways they can,” said Tabitha Jackson, in her first year as Sundance’s festival director, in a press statement. “So Sundance, as a festival of discovery, will bring that work to its first audiences in whatever ways we can.”

That includes an online platform for virtual screenings, at festival.sundance.org, alongside drive-ins, independent arthouses, and “a network of local community partnerships”  for satellite screenings, officials wrote.

In September, Sundance officials approached Denver Film — which it had worked with in the past on the Sundance Ignite short-film challenge and educational program, as well as the Film Forward director’s series — about taking part, said Matthew Campbell, artistic director of Denver Film.

“It’s very much an exploratory thing,” Campbell said. “But we expect to be screening (in-person) films at the Sie every day of the festival.”

The festival returns next month for a seven-day run, Jan. 28-Feb. 3. No titles have been announced, but the fact that Sundance is willing to physically premiere titles in Denver at the same time they’re making their online debut is a mark of the film world’s deep uncertainty right now.

On Thursday, Warner Bros. announced it will release all of its 2021 movies in theaters and on streaming simultaneously, shocking an already-bedraggled exhibition industry.

“We’re treading very lightly,” said Campbell, whose nonprofit organization mounted a successful, all-virtual Denver Film Festival last month and has offered streaming titles on denverfilm.org since late spring. “And, of course, when it happens, we’ll be adhering to all local and state safety guidelines in terms of ticket sales and screenings.”

The partnership is a win for Denver Film, and a possible path to future collaborations as major festivals broadly rethink their audiences and formats. While Campbell said Denver Film officials are honored by the Sundance partnership, he’s not sure what the future of festivals looks like in general.

“Who knows?” he said. “For example, will Sundance films we screen still be eligible to screen in the Denver Film Festival, despite not having premiered here (as is Denver Film’s rule)? The short answer is ‘yes.’ Extenuating circumstances have forced us to be a little more nimble and not so tied to the rules of the past. The whole market is adapting to survive the pandemic.”

The Sie FilmCenter is the only venue scheduled to show Sundance film entries in Colorado, although states such as California, Florida and Texas will offer multiple venues for the satellite-theater experiment.

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