Sundance was one of the only film festivals last year to go as planned and in person. So, Sundance 2021 was definitely different. Audiences and filmmakers were tuning in from their home theaters, where it was easy to pause, take a break or watch around the clock. 

Sundance is a fleeting moment, chance meetings, conversations while waiting in line, lively filmmaker interviews, secret parties, art installations, and of course never before seen films. It is hard to imagine recreating this feeling in the virtual world, but there are things to be learned from the Sundance festival team that can apply to future online events. 

Keeping the event exclusive

Sundance is a unique experience that not everyone can afford. The festival is normally held in Park City, Utah, a small mountain town outside Salt Lake City. Most people attending need to purchase plane tickets, find a hotel or Airbnb and then pay for film tickets or passes on top. During a typical festival year, films sell out quickly and have waiting lists for seats; This is like winning the lottery and adding to the event’s hype. 

The experience was transferred to Sundance 2021 through passes and screening windows. Each film had a viewing time. Attendees could reserve a seat for a movie for the first time within 3 hours, and then they were able to participate in the Q+A. If they missed the first screening, there would be one more chance a day later, but seats were limited. 

By moving online, the festival is more accessible as far as where viewers could watch the films from but still had the Sundance experience.  

Event managers can follow this model by making some parts of their virtual event special. It could be through a viewing window. For instance, if attendees tune in during the live portion, they can access the speakers or more content. 

Fireside Chats 

During an average festival year, Sundance has talks and presentations from filmmakers throughout the day that attendees can sign up for or drop in. These are not recorded or replayed, so if they cannot attend during the event, it was too late. And scheduling the talks between film screenings could be difficult depending on where the theater is located. It could be a bus ride away. 

Sundance 2021 made all talks and panels available throughout the festival, and viewers did not need a special pass or ticket to watch. It did not matter what time of day; viewers could hit the replay and watch. Having pieces of the event accessible at all hours made it easy to schedule films based on availability and catch a talk during a break. 

Event managers could gain inspiration from this concept and allow some of the content to live on after the event is finished. So, even if attendees could not be there on the day, they could watch highlights. 

Photo by Kilyan Sockalingum on Unsplash

New Frontier – Virtual Networking 

New Frontier is Sundance’s art space, it typically features VR and digital art. This is also a space that hosts quite a few festival parties. This year was no different. By logging in to the virtual New Frontier, users could create their avatar and walk around the space station. It was a virtual meeting place where attendees could discuss films, view art, and attend some of the exclusive Sundance parties; If you knew the password. The parties were a virtual event where you could bring a glass of champagne and chat with people from all over the world about their experience with Sundance 2021. 

Forums and large events usually involve networking but moving that into a digital space can be difficult. But if it is interactive, perhaps themed, it is more inviting. It is not the same as going to a real party, but it is like a tweet chat with avatars. 

Daily Recaps 

One of the best parts of the festival is seeing the daily recaps before each film. It features short clips of attendees experiences at the festival, volunteers doing their thing, and filmmaker spottings; This was alive and well during Sundance 2021. Every morning there was a word from the festival director. Rehashing what had happened the day before, showing clips from viewers at home, and chatting with filmmakers over breakfast. 

One way to personalize an event or put a face to the name could be through a recap or chat feature. When large companies host events, it can seem impersonal. One thing viewers have gotten used to this past year sees a day in the life or behind the scenes view into others homes. Whether that is on a work zoom call or TV, this should be part of the event. Bring the viewers in and make it fun. Have an event hashtag and share tweets or photos during the event, and post videos throughout. 

Digital events are not new. But the ways event managers can make it fresh are endless. Sometimes simply asking is the best way to find out what attendees are looking for in a digital event. Make a poll, see what interests them most when attending in-person events and see how to translate that into a virtual format. 

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