The Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday and runs through Jan. 30, one of the world's premiere independent film fests unfurling again as an online event anyone can experience from home. Buzzy movie premieres like stream to your living room TV (or even your phone, if you prefer the smallest screen). A virtual spaceship is packed with film parties, performances and cutting-edge projects intersecting art with technology.
But that wasn't the plan all along.
A little more than two weeks ago, Sundance 2022 aspired to be a hybrid festival. Programmers and organizers refined the virtual festival based on lessons learned during 2021's near-lockdown. This year, the virtual was planned to complement the physical, with a return to the snowy mountain hamlet of Park City, Utah, Sundance's traditional home. Sundance hoped to bring back in-person screenings, parties, and the wildly ambitious New Frontier installations and performances there. They even developed a so-called Biodigital Bridge, a screen system set up in Utah that would allow in-person festival-goers to interact with avatar attendees on the virtual fest's spaceship.
The twists in COVID-19's plotlines aren't surprising anyone anymore. In the midst of yet another nationwide surge of, Sundance called off the in-person elements in Park City, pivoting almost everything online.
"Our Sundance spirit is in making something work against the odds. But with case numbers forecasted to peak in our host community the week of the festival we cannot knowingly put our staff and community at risk," festival organizers wrote in an announcement, modestly titled "2022 Sundance Film Festival: Update." Charging ahead with an in-person event would be "irresponsible," the note added, given the stress it would put on local health services and the fest's 1,500 staff and volunteers.
The upside is that Sundance, once again, is as accessible as it can be.
The online festival is available for anyone in the US with an internet connection -- if your Wi-Fi can handle Netflix or Disney Plus, it should be able to stream Sundance without gaffes. Segments of the fest are available to aficionados outside the US, too. Film premieres will stream, and movies have multiple showings, so you can catch some as they build buzz. After streaming a movie premiere, you can linger for a filmmaker and cast Q&A from your couch. With a computer or a VR headset, you can pop into post-premiere parties to mingle and chat about the film with other attendees and some of its creators.
The New Frontier program -- the fest's tech-heavy branch focused on cutting-edge storytelling -- has a collection of 15 projects available to check out with tech both high and low. Three projects require a virtual-reality headset tethered to a gaming-caliber desktop, but five others are available to check out on nothing fancier than a standard computer. They include a Las Vegas mystery playing out on Discord with digital-art NFTs and the next stage of one of last year's hottest New Frontier projects, an audio-based journey now called 32 Sounds (up from 7 Sounds the year before). Two experiences are mobile apps, and five virtual-reality pieces are available with an untethered VR headset like an Oculus Quest.
Shari Frilot, the chief curator of the New Frontier program, said last year's festival was a "breakthrough moment" of what a virtual Sundance could pull off.
"This year, we're actually building to it," she said. "That's really going to enrich the life [of the festival] even further."
Armed with some tips about the movies, projects and talks that tech lovers want on their radar, you can figure out how to suit the festival to your own tastes and your tech on hand. The sections below include a breakdown of the New Frontier program by the devices you need to experience them, as well as a roundup of films with a tech bent, a science spin or a geek-appealing genre.
New Frontier's full run is available with a $50 Explorer Pass.
For films, you can get $20 individual tickets, which give you a 45-minute taste of New Frontier. Or you can unlock multiple screenings and New Frontier on the same day with $100 Day Passes.
But these online screenings can sell out. Fresh, for example, is a psychological thriller starring , and it premiered Thursday as part of the festival's genre-focused Midnight program. It'll become available to stream again on Saturday starting at 7 a.m. PT/10 a.m. ET during its "second screening" -- but tickets to that screening sold out before the festival even started. It doesn't hurt to check back here as the start time draws closer; sometimes more tickets open up. (More details on ticketing and streaming below.)
Sundance's organizers have explainers on the nitty-gritty of how all this works, as well a guide to getting your tech setup in place in advance.
New Frontier helped put virtual reality on Hollywood's map. This year, most of New Frontier's projects are available on demand throughout the entire run of the festival, including some that are changing shape during the festival's run. A few, however, involve an element of live performance, available to experience only at specific times.
Many of the New Frontier projects are accessible with tech on hand in most internet-connected homes -- either a standard computer or a smartphone. The following list rounds up projects like these, with their program descriptions and other details:
- 32 Sounds -- An immersive documentary and sensory film experience that explores the elemental phenomenon of sound and its power to bend time, cross borders and profoundly shape our perception of the world around us.
This audio-based project, available with only two performances (one happening Thursday, so don't miss it), expands upon one of New Frontier's most popular projects last year. You can access 32 Sounds either with a computer or a VR headset, and a high-quality set of headphones is recommended for a "truly unique binaural audio experience."
- Atua -- Reimagining the realm of Pacific gods in this sculptural AR experience. Claiming space for gender-diverse communities impacted by colonial contact, to see themselves reflected as vital to their cultural heritage and an intrinsic part of the cosmos.
This augmented-reality experience is accessed through your mobile phone; it's available only during timed performances, with five opportunities to check it out during the fest.
- Cosmogony -- A live digital performance in which three dancers are motion captured in Geneva and projected remotely in real time.
Viewable on a standard computer (as well as a VR headset), this project has time-specific performances four times over the course of the fest.
- The Inside World -- The city of Las Vegas is now operated by artificial intelligence. Fourteen AI "managers" handle every sector of the city. The problem is, one of them is secretly human. Digital art NFTs meet gameplay in this community-driven mystery.
This project largely takes place on a Discord server that anyone can join with a Discord account, regardless of whether you have a Sundance pass. It involves multiple events, including two happening on Discord, and a lottery to win one of three digital art NFTs.
- Seven Grams -- An entirely new way for people to understand the human cost that went into producing their smartphones. This project brings the Democratic Republic of Congo's tragic mining industry straight to the smartphone that its mineral resources helped make, via an app on both iOS and Android systems.
Available as a mobile app for iOS and Android.
- Suga' -- A Live Virtual Dance Performance -- An immersive experience that features live dance performance as volumetric video in social virtual reality space. The performance weaves together movement, family stories and cultural heritage to imagine virtual environments as a site for healing and reclamation of spaces that were historically filled with pain and injustice.
These live performances, taking place six times throughout the festival are available to watch on the web with a computer. (They're also available to be experienced more immersively with a VR headset.)
- Surrogate -- How do we relate to the future while living in a world in crisis? Amid climate change, inequity and a pandemic, it's no longer possible to view ourselves as separate from past and future. How much control should we have over a birthing person's body and a life before it's born?
It's accessible through a computer or mobile phone, and the artist also integrates a mobile app linked to a prosthetic "womb" she wears for live "womb walks." Using the app, a festival-goer who signs up for one of these performances can control the artist's movements through the app by directing the kicks of a fetus inside a pregnant woman's body.
Virtual reality projects come in two flavors: those that you can watch with untethered headsets and those that require a headset tethered to a high-powered desktop.
VR works that you can experience with an untethered headset, like a Quest 1 or 2:
- 32 Sounds -- See the description in the list above. This project is available only during a couple of time-specific performances. Along with the next two projects it's accessible with a computer or more immersively with an untethered headset.
- Suga' -- A Live Virtual Dance Performance -- This project description is in the list above because it is also available on computer, but again it's only accessible during time-specific performances.
- Cosmogony -- Like the previous two, it's description is in the list above. Again, it's also available on a computer but only during times-specific performances.
- Child of Empire -- Experience the largest forced migration in human history, the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. Embody the childhood memories of two survivors, as they reflect on their journeys across a divided homeland.
- On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World) -- On a regular Saturday morning in January 2018, as Hawaiian citizens went about their daily routines, the entire state population received an SMS from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which read: "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAI'I. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL."
- The State of Global Peace -- The prime minister of a fictitious country -- played by you -- is about to deliver a speech at a virtual UN General Assembly in the near future. A group of students hijack the security system and take over the screens, asking to have a dialogue.
- They Dream in My Bones -- Insemnopedy II -- Immersed in virtual veils, this VR360 experience tells the story of Roderick Norman, a researcher in onirogenetics -- the science he founded -- which is intended to extract dreams from an unidentified skeleton at the frontier of gender and the human.
- This Is Not a Ceremony -- Darkly humorous and occasionally caustic, this cinematic VR experience offers insights into the struggles and conflicts of growing up an Indigenous man.
And VR projects needing a desktop-tethered VR headset include:
- Diagnosia -- In this VR experience, the director locks us inside his teenage memories of being incarcerated in a military-operated internet addiction camp in Beijing in 2007, where internet addiction and other youth issues were treated as severe mental disorders, and sometimes by violent means.
- Flat Earth VR -- VR is known as the ultimate empathy machine that lets users experience others' perspectives. But what happens when those perspectives are delusional? Experience the ultimate flat-earther fantasy: Ascend into the stars and prove all globe-earthers wrong by taking photos of the planet as it truly is -- flat like a pancake.
- Gondwana -- A durational VR experience that runs over 24 hours, and a constantly evolving virtual ecosystem chronicling the possible futures of the world's oldest tropical rainforest, the Daintree. Powered by climate data, each showing is unrepeatable and speculative, a meditation on time, change and loss in an irreplaceable landscape. (You can experience this project without a headset on a Windows gaming-capable computer, by downloading and running an executable file.)
If you're unclear on how to access any of the projects, use your Sundance account credentials to board the spaceship at newfrontier.sundance.org. Then navigate to the area called Gallery. There, every New Frontier project will be on display -- each one has a button you can select that says "Learn more." The pop-up screen will list the devices you can use to experience that project on the right-hand side, with links to further instructions about how to access that project on a particular device. The instructions for each project are unique, so check them out before you attempt to dive in.
Sundance movies with a tech bent
The following films have a tech, science or genre bent. They're listed with their program descriptions, with links to each film's page that has more detail and screening times:
- After Yang -- In the near future, a father and daughter try to save the life of Yang, their beloved robotic family member.
- Brian and Charles -- A story of friendship, love, and letting go. And a 7-foot-tall robot that eats cabbages. A comedy shot in documentary format.
- Downfall: The Case Against Boeing -- A documentary investigation of the two Boeing 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people, exploring both the root causes and the human cost. At once a chilling portrait of a crumbling corporate culture and a fierce indictment of Wall Street's corrupting influence.
- Dual -- After receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah commissions a clone of herself to ease the loss for her friends and family. When she makes a miraculous recovery, her attempt to have her clone decommissioned fails and leads to a court-mandated duel to the death.
- Fire of Love -- In this documentary, intrepid scientists and lovers Katia and Maurice Krafft died in a volcanic explosion doing the very thing that brought them together: unraveling the mysteries of volcanoes by capturing the most explosive imagery ever recorded. A doomed love triangle between Katia, Maurice and volcanoes, told through their archival footage.
- Hatching -- While desperately trying to please her demanding mother, a young gymnast discovers a strange egg. She tucks it away and keeps it warm, but when it hatches, what emerges shocks everyone.
- Jeen-yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy -- A highly anticipated Netflix film series premiering at Sundance before it hits the global streaming service next month. The story beyond the iconic music, an intimate and empathetic chronicle featuring never-before-seen footage from 21 years in the life of a captivating figure.
- Maika -- After a meteor falls to Earth, 8-year-old Hung meets an alien girl from the planet Maika, searching for her lost friend. As Hung helps his otherworldly friend search, the alien inadvertently helps Hung make new friends and heal a broken heart. But danger lurks everywhere.
- Master -- Three women strive to find their place at an elite New England university built on the site of a Salem-era gallows hill. As the insidious specter of racism haunts the campus in increasingly supernatural fashion, each fights to survive in this space of privilege.
- Nanny -- Aisha is an undocumented nanny working for a privileged couple in New York City. As she prepares for the arrival of the son she left behind in Senegal, a violent supernatural presence invades her reality, threatening the American dream she is painstakingly piecing together.
- Neptune Frost -- In an otherworldly e-waste dump camp, a subversive hacking collective attempts a takeover of the authoritarian regime exploiting the region's natural resources -- and its people. When an intersex runaway and an escaped coltan miner find each other through cosmic forces, their connection sparks glitches within the greater divine circuitry.
- Something in the Dirt -- When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realize documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives. It becomes an ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole, and their friendship frays as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city and each other.
- TikTok, Boom. -- With TikTok now crowned the world's most downloaded app, these are the personal stories of a cultural phenomenon, told through an ensemble cast of Gen-Z natives, journalists and experts alike. This documentary film seeks to answer, "Why is an app best known for people dancing the target of so much controversy?"
- To the End -- Stopping the climate crisis is a question of political courage, and the clock is ticking. Over three years of turbulence and crisis, four remarkable young women of color fight for a Green New Deal and ignite a historic shift in US climate politics.
- We Met in Virtual Reality -- Filmed entirely inside the world of VR, this vérité documentary follows couples who met in virtual reality during the pandemic and captures the excitement and surprising intimacy of a burgeoning cultural movement, demonstrating the power of online connection in an isolated world.
- You Won't Be Alone -- In an isolated mountain village in 19th-century Macedonia, a young feral witch accidentally kills a peasant. She assumes the peasant's shape to see what life is like in her skin, igniting a deep-seated curiosity to experience life inside the bodies of others.
How to navigate and schedule Sundance online
Sundance's films are accessible through the fest's main site. You can set up your TV to stream from your computer with a cable connection or by casting wirelessly. TV viewing is simplest for people with , or , thanks to Sundance's dedicated streaming apps. Sundance also has apps for streaming to iOS or Android mobile gadgets.
Every film has two opportunities to watch: its premiere, when you have a three-hour window to start the movie, and a full day's worth of availability two days later. At the end of the festival, a new kind of pass will open up that'll give you access to watch the smaller selection of movies that won festival awards. Regardless of which showing you pick, once you start watching a film, you have five hours to complete it.
Fifteen minutes before the official premiere start time, participants can join in a text-based chat among themselves and the filmmakers, akin to chatting while waiting in line (just without the subfreezing temperatures). After a premiere, viewers will jump over to a live Q&A with the filmmakers on YouTube. And then you can go to the film's afterparty at the virtual spaceship, either on your computer or in a VR headset.
You can build up your own schedule of screenings you'd like to check out by registering an online Sundance account. When signed in, any film screening that you favorite will populate in your personal festival schedule. You favorite a screening by going to that title's main page and clicking on the "online" section, then click the white plus symbol labeled "favorite."
You can find your personal schedule in the three-lined hamburger menu. It's the calendar-like icon right next to your circular profile photo.
If you're interested in watching a movie with a single-film ticket, start on the ticketing page. Underneath the green tile titled "Single Film Ticket," click the box that says "Select a screening." This will launch a pop-up menu where you can see the screenings with tickets available and those that are sold out. (If the one you want is sold out, it doesn't hurt to check back closer to the start of the showing -- sometimes more tickets open up.)