PARK CITY (ABC4) – It was supposed to be a celebrated stretch of glitz and glamour, as it usually is. A 10-day stretch where the best of Hollywood and Broadway converge in the Utah mountains, bringing world-class dining, celebrity sightings, and an enhanced appreciation of the arts to the streets of Park City.
However, none of the in-person fun that makes up the Sundance Film Festival will be present in 2022. Due to the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, due primarily to the Omicron variant, the Festival announced last week that it would be forced to host all its events virtually, rather than the hybrid model that was scheduled for months.
For Park City’s local leaders, it’s a disappointing but understandable blow to winter planning.
“We support their decision, the COVID cases across the country are surging, and now’s not necessarily the right time to be sitting in with 400 500 people in a theater, we get that,” Park City Chamber of Commerce President Jennifer Wesselhoff explains to ABC4.com.
While safety was the primary concern, there’s another side of the coin to the cancellation of in-person events, the economic impact, a major theme throughout the pandemic. It’s hard to localize or calculate the exact loss in revenue that Sundance brings to Park City, but Wesselhoff states that in non-pandemic years, the entire state sees a windfall of $150 million from the film festival.
That’s a lot of money to miss out on and with the decision to move to virtual-only events made just over two weeks away from the start of the Festival there was little time to brace for the loss.
For the folks and businesses who depend on Sundance as a great week and a half to make their money, it’s going to hurt.
“The economic impact on the businesses on the state on everybody, it hits across the board, from airlines to businesses in Salt Lake, in Summit County, Wasatch County, Utah County, you name it, everybody’s affected and impacted,” says Brooks Kirchheimer, a restaurateur who owns Hearth and Hill in Park City.
Kirchheimer knows the Sundance effect well. After a spell managing Festival founder Robert Redford’s Main Street eatery, Zoom, he opened his own Park City restaurant in 2018. Not only is he concerned about the impact on his business – he’s estimating a loss of 10 to 15% from his annual revenue – he’s also worried about his employees.
“It’s a big moneymaker for staff during those 10 days that they count on, and they rely upon in terms of their paychecks,” Kirchheimer laments. “And so this year will obviously have an impact on that.”
Wesselhoff also knows a virtual-only Sundance will have an impact on frontline workers and fellow Park City residents. While she and her team are scrambling to work on some initiatives to help make up for some of the losses, what Park City is banking on at this point is a great snow season.
Branding her city as “Winter’s Favorite Town,” Wesselhoff is optimistic that the snowfall will be rich and heavy and the area will be buzzing with folks looking to enjoy the weather.
“Sundance makes up about 10 days of our total 120 plus days that we’re marketing for our winter season, so it is absolutely an incredible impact but we also have, you know, 110 days that we’re marketing and promoting Park City,” she says.
According to her 60-forecast, the leisure occupancy performance numbers are looking strong, even has the uncertainty of COVID hangs over the city – and the nation, maybe even the world at large.
Still, they’ve done this before. Park City has managed one winter without the benefits of a typical Sundance, Wesselhoff is sure the town can do it again.
“If we learned anything in the last year and a half, it’s that our community is resilient,” she boasts. “We work together, there’s a ton of collaboration and cooperation.”
Kirchheimer, however, is concerned about what two consecutive winters without the full Festival experience could mean for the future of the event.
“Are sponsors going to start wondering, ‘Okay, well, it’s been canceled. Do I need to spend the budget that I had for Sundance on somewhere else?’ ‘Can I rely upon something that’s happening next year or will suddenly change?’” he supposes. “So I think there’s a lot of questions coming from this. Alright, one year, OK, but two years in a row? Does that really change how Sundance operates for years to come?”
In movie terms, it’s a real cliffhanger.