A Week at Sundance on $31

Each January, Hollywood's high rollers converge on Park City, Utah, for the most exclusive industry event of the year, the Sundance Film Festival. I was invited last year as a guest speaker, an expert in the emerging field of "digital" filmmaking. The authors of my email invitation overlooked one thing, the magnitude of my poverty.

>> jason, can you get to sundance if we
>> put you on a dialog about convergence
>> media? you'll have to pay for the flight
>> and find a place to stay. that's not a
>> problem, right?

I received the email in my office, which, technically, isn't really an office; it's the space under my loft bed. Immediately, I phoned Utah to explain that making a name for myself with movies on the Web and the Palm Pilot doesn't mean making any money and I would seriously benefit from subsidized airfare, accommodations, even a movie ticket or two. The festival coordinator suggested I sleep on someone's floor.

She wasn't joking, but I had backpacked Europe. I romanticized the possibilities: seducing a beautiful woman for a condo and a three-picture deal at Miramax, maybe selling the story to a Men's magazine. I decided to go for a week.

I still needed a flight so I called Cathy from high school. Cathy is a stewardess. If you do not yet have friends in the aviation industry, I suggest making some now. My free "companion" tickets arrived by mail Monday afternoon at three o'clock and, with bags packed, I was out the door within a half hour, on the next flight to Utah. So far, the trip cost nothing.

My inventory, upon arrival in Park City: 31 dollars; a fistful of maxed out credit cards; one messenger bag containing PowerBook, Camcorder, Palm Pilot, toothbrush, razor, and change of clothes; one airline ticket. I just needed food and a place to stay.

I previously arranged to spend that first night with a cameraman who, by the time we rendezvoused at the baggage claim, had already picked up a girl, meaning I would have to pay 15 dollars for an airport shuttle and fend for myself.

+ $15

At 2 am, I stepped off the bus into the snowdrift wastelands of "The Empire Strikes Back" and thought, "Had I ever seen 'Doctor Zhivago' I'd be reminded of that too." The entire town was closed. I ventured into the nearest frou-frou hotel and asked the concierge for a quiet corner to "work." He showed me to the private den, complete with coffee maker, hot chocolate machine, big screen TV, and one very large, very plush, very comfy couch. I set out my computer, told him I needed privacy, shut the door, then slept oh so soundly in the den at the Mountain Village Lodge, Park City's Only Full Service Ski-In/Ski-Out Hotel™.

Tuesday, I threw out my socks from the plane because when traveling extra-light there's no need to carry dirty laundry. (In case you're auditing me, they were originally a gift.) At the Festival Office, a considerate intern offered me ten free film passes, a piece of coffee cake (for later), and access to "The Lounge."

Ranking a close second behind Park City's free local bus service, the Sundance Filmmaker Hospitality Lounge is a mainstay for survival on the cheap. Coffee, fresh squeezed juice, and shrink-wrapped carbo-bars were de rigueur. The catering service also provided brownies (10 am - 2 pm), cheese and crackers (1pm - 6 pm), and vegetable crudités (from 3 - 4 only).

I stuffed my pockets with food and left. While munching cubed cheese in a hotel lobby, I eavesdropped on four producers debating complex party strategy. I interrupted to ask if they could recommend any films. They told me they were not in town to see films. I asked if they would recommend any parties.

For dinner, I met with Alex, my 17-year-old intern, who happened to be visiting Utah for the week on an all-expense paid trip with a youth film program. Here I was, a guest speaker at Sundance, and my intern was getting the free ride. We split a cab ($4 apiece) to the Independent Feature Project party (IFP).

+ $4 = $19.00

Securing an invitation to a Sundance party may be impossible, but breaking in is a cakewalk. We had no fences to jump, no walls to scale, no Rottweilers to subdue. We simply arrived early, pretended to know someone important, and hit the hors d'oeuvres. Befriending the waitstaff is always the preferred technique when traveling on a budget. The very act of party crashing was as elegant and sophisticated as the champagne with raspberries served behind the velvet ropes.

When the time came to leave, Alex's program strictly forbade guests but I had a backup plan. Earlier that day, I met with Lloyd Kaufman at his condo. Lloyd is the founder of Troma Pictures, director of cult classic "The Toxic Avenger Part 2" and host of Troma-Dance, one of the myriad spin-off festivals that turns the peaceful, God-fearing community of Park City upside down every January, concurrent with Slamdance, No Dance, Lap Dance, Son of Sam Dance, and The Olympics. I had left my big puffy jacket in Lloyd's living room when we spoke, so, at 3 am, without any better plans for the night, I decided to collect my belongings only to find I wasn't the first with that idea. There were already 90 people asleep on the floor: pierced and pimply film poseurs, bottleblonde b-movie bimbettes. The condo reeked of feet and piss. Ron Jeremy was in the kitchen. I found a place on the landing above the stairs where I slept fitfully, using my bag as a pillow, waking at the crack of dawn. It was Wednesday. Someone was cooking breakfast. The house smelled like piss, feet, and toast. I couldn't stay.

Fortunately, Sundance programs films from 8 am til midnight. I shaved in a theater washroom before heading to the Lounge for my morning juice and brownies.

Sundance set up headquarters at a hotel called Shadow Ridge. Since I was already consuming my meager rations in the Lounge, I started using the luggage room as my closet. I came with two jackets, alternating down-filled parka by night, windbreaker by day. Here's a tip: if you're poor, look cool.

After fourteen hours of cheese and cinema, I reunited with Alex for the Atom Films party, held in a barn outside town. Cabs cost twelve dollars a head. I explained to my reluctant intern that thumbing a ride in a ski town is different than in the big city. Serene mountainscapes are not known for drive-bys or car-jackings. In a Lily-White Community like Park City, the locals may have basements full of handguns and kiddie porn but not in their cars. Hitching is safe.

I ordered two drinks and tipped the bartender ($2) because I was low on material.

+ $2 = $21.00

Afterwards, Alex secured a ride to his hotel. Even though I plied him with booze, he still wouldn't offer me his floor. I knew one other New Yorker staying nearby, in sylvan Deer Valley. I counted my money and hailed a cab. The driver offered me a flat rate but couldn't find the stop, so he moved me to the front seat and continued shuttling other passengers between Park City and Deer Valley until I reluctantly forked over $8 to be dropped off alone in the woods during a snow storm. Fortunately, I still had my coffee cake. But I became uncomfortably aware of a pitch-black SUV following me without any lights and if this was the movie of my life, I was nearing the scene where I get made into women's clothing.

+ $8 = $29.00

The digital film community is small. My slow-driving stalker turned out to be the head of Atom Films trying to scare me. He offered me a lift.

The next morning I was checking email at the Sundance Digital Pavilion when Roger Ebert finished an interview at the adjacent table and we struck up a conversation. I showed him a couple video clips on my Palm Pilot. He seemed genuinely impressed with the notion that media could be truly portable. My suffering had been worthwhile; I got my first Thumbs-Up.

I already spent 29 of my 31 dollars, so with my Immediate Liquid Status at the critical two dollar margin, I stopped at the ATM on my way to a midnight movie with my cool-as-ice intern. He scored two scalped tickets ($8 each) and I highly recommend scalpers as an alternative to the tedious festival wait-list lines, unless, of course, you're operating on a $31 budget. The air was biting. I was already bankrupt. I also bought a cup of tea ($2).

+ $8 + $2 = $39.00

It's impossible to find a place to stay after a midnight movie. I slept on the floor in Deer Valley a second night. This time, the cab brought me directly to the door so I tipped ($8 fare, $1 gratuity).

+ $9 = $48.00

Maxims of the Nomadic Lifestyle: 1. When traveling light, do not accept gifts. 2. When staying in someone else's home, eat the food.

I woke up Friday morning, pinned between a coffee table and a suitcase, with an acute awareness that the spine really is comprised of 33 distinct vertebrae. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, but first, I had a speech to give. That is why I came.

Everyone from the condo was packing to go home. I took an unopened case of Heineken and scrambled over the powder to the festival shuttle. I wanted to distribute free beer to my audience, but I had so much trouble just juggling my own stuff that I opted, instead, to make a gift of the beer to the Sundance Office Staff as I passed through Shadow Ridge, swapping jackets in the luggage room.

After five days of successfully braving the elements, the pretension, and the high cost of living, I was ready for my moment of legitimacy. The topic was "convergence" and the mood was "congenial." The audience was packed, and, together with four other speakers, we led a discussion of new technologies, new business models, and new storytelling techniques. It was all rather anti-climactic. My intern didn't even show.

I then had a one o'clock radio interview at the Digital Pavilion, after which the host bought me a sandwich and the Sundance Digital Coordinator offered me the extra room in his condo. Suddenly, fortune was smiling. It had been four nights since I slept in a real bed.

I showered and changed for Friday night's gala because the quickest way into a party where Paul Oakenfold is the DJ is to know someone who knows his manager, and the best way to do that is to bring beer to the film festival office. If you do not yet have friends working the front desk at Sundance, I suggest making some now.

Once inside, I hit the buffet while my intern found a quiet corner to drink alone because he was feeling moody. Before long, a small group of film financiers and beautiful blonde girls invited Alex to their private after-party. I tagged along.

At the after-party, our hosts presented us with new shoes upon arrival. As I had thrown away socks and underwear, there was exactly enough space in my bag for one new pair of pre-season hipster hiking boots.

Drunk, stoned, and underage, Alex collapsed on the couch for the night. Five of us commandeered Park City's "Live Music Taxi," a karaoke bar on wheels. I think I might have paid for everyone...

+ $20 = $68.00

I woke up Saturday afternoon, in my own bed, alone, fully clothed, 20 dollars short. I watched documentaries all day then joined my final Sundance soirée for mango-cilantro-chicken fajitas. I hadn't heard from Alex and didn't call his cell because I ran out of quarters. He was getting on my nerves.

After the after-parties, I raided somebody's mini-bar with a short-filmmaker named Max. He took a beer. I took a yogurt. We shared a cab ($5) to the parking lot where he was living in his van. Apparently, there were worse things to be at Sundance than a digital panelist. I could've been a short-filmmaker.

+ $5 = $73.00

Max and I spent the entire week as self-proclaimed martyrs. Meanwhile, another filmmaker spent his week distributing hand-made leaflets describing how he smuggled himself over the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan, flew to Utah in the luggage compartment of an airplane, left behind his loved-ones in a homeland where it is illegal to speak English, criticize the government, or make movies, and brought his English-language political film to Sundance. At the end, he asked for tax-deductible donations. He was the real martyr. Next year, I'm doing that.

I hiked to Shadow Ridge at 6 am to retrieve my jacket and hitch a ride to the airport, but the shuttle was already waiting, and, after everything else, it seemed worth the 20 dollars.

+ $20 = $93.00

Looking back, if it weren't for one movie ticket and a few unnecessary rides, I would have only spent four dollars. I don't know how Alex fared financially, but when I bumped into the little shit at the airport he was sifting through a three and a half-inch stack of business cards. It turns out my young mover-and-shaker and I were sharing a flight, meaning he hadn't died of alcohol poisoning and his father could drive me home from the airport.

A week later, I sold the free shoes on eBay for 62 dollars.

TOTAL = $31.00

Jason Wishnow is a digital filmmaker who is still broke.


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