On the Ground at Sundance: Chaos Reigns

Coming down the escalator into the baggage claim area at SLC airport, it’s hard not to feel like a nobody—there is an army of drivers holding up all manner of signs for everybody...except you.

Milling about the airport waiting for some shuttle and… Oh, look, it’s Tom McCarthy, that character actor whose name you don’t know, despite the fact that he wrote and directed the great indie film “The Station Agent,” which won three awards at the 2003 Sundance. He’s  back this year with “Win Win,” starring Paul Giamatti as a lawyer/wrestling coach.

And, hello, America Ferrera, who is almost unrecognizable without her “Ugly Betty” get-up (it took guts for a woman that hot to play Betty—hats off, America). She’s in town to serve as U.S. Dramatic juror. She looks vaguely lost—not like “sad, pathetic lost,” but “What is going on? lost.”

Ten of us pile into a van for the ride from SLC to the hotel (about 40 minutes). Our driver for the journey is Paul, an older gentleman who is retired and does this for a little extra money. Paul gleefully regales with all manner of arcana: "This is my sixth trip today...I'll probably do two more"; "We haul about 1,000 people every day from SLC to Park City during the festival"; "See those houses up there? That’s where (notorious polygamist) Warren Jeffs lived"; "Us drivers, we call that Moose Mountain, cuz you can always see moose up there--they look like rocks"; "Cougars only attack from behind" (this elicits immature giggling from everyone in the van); and as we roll down SR-224 at the Park City limits, "I grew up here and I can remember when this was a two-lane dirt road."

After dropping off your gear at your hotel (are there really people cross-country skiing past the window?), the next stop is Sundance HQ at the Park City Marriott, where the front door is flanked by quaintly amusing bowls of flame, no doubt a vestige of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Inside, volunteers, filmmakers, journalists and industry people swarm about.

The amount of furious texting going on is comical. It’s a wonder some surgeon specializing in carpal tunnel syndrome doesn’t occupy one of the pop-up stores along Main Street; it would be a cash cow.

Main Street is a mixture of shops (the likes of which might sell a squirrel carved from drift by Len Tukwilla), ad hoc nightclubs from the folks at Bing, The Sundance Channel and Hewlett-Packard (?) and a number of other real bars and restaurants, most of them overflowing with humanity. It's been estimated that $100 million will be poured into the town thanks to the festival.

But if you make it toward the bottom of the strip, and hang a left on 7th, you’ll find yourself walking directly toward the High West Distillery and Saloon, where the crush isn’t nearly as pitched, the house-made double rye is delicious and the bartender Michael is a wee coy about the Sundance crowd.

“A lot of the local people who live here will leave, they feel like it’s gotten too big. There’s not any parking, there isn't anything available for them to do. It’s just very, very busy up here—it can be a little frustrating. They kind of turn their town over to Sundance, in a way. There’s approximately 250,000 rooms up here available, and they’re full, so that’s a lot of people up here right now.”

The quarter-million seems impossible when you consider the town has a year-round population that hovers south of 10,000. But whatever, there’s a ton of people in town for the festival, and they can strain the bounds of even the friendliest bartender’s patience.

“Sundance people, they’re, ah, Hollywood people. We look forward to seeing them, they generate a lot of good energy and they create a buzz that’s good for business. Every once in a while you have to click on autopilot, but that kinda comes with the territory.”

A seasoned veteran of the service industry, Michael's smile doesn't falter once. But you can see the effort required.

If you’re wondering how the Mormons feel about all the drinking, know that across the top of the menu at the High West is a warning that Utah law says you’re only allowed to have two drinks in front of you at one time, which seems reasonable enough. And if you’re wondering how the festival attendees feel about drinking, know that the shuttle bus drivers will shout out, unprompted, if they’re making a stop near a liquor store. “People ask,” the driver shrugs, when asked why he was telling us.

Riding around town on one of the many free shuttle buses, it’s the one place where locals, skiers and festivalgoers all come together in an uneasy truce. The former are trying to keep their smiles from devolving into grimaces, while the latter camps eye each other suspiciously. Ironically, folks will tell you that the 10 days of Sundance are maybe the best for skiing as the slopes are empty. Apparently the ski community gets priced out by the film folk. If you can swing it, it just may be worth the extra money on lodging.

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