PARK CITY, Utah (ABC4) – Since 1978, the Sundance Film Festival has been bringing forward thinking independent films directly to the mountains of Utah. Until last year, that is.

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that the annual film festival – which is the largest, and arguably most famous, of its kind in the country – was forced to switch to a virtual format in 2021 due to the ongoing COVID- 19 pandemic. But for some, it was a shock when festival organizers made the announcement that the festival would be virtual this year, too.

“Although it was a difficult decision for us to make, ultimately it was, I think, the most responsible thing for us to do for our entire community,” Kim Yutani, Sundance Film Festival’s director of programming told ABC4.com.

Sundance made the announcement last week, less than two weeks before the festival’s January 20 start date. According to the Sundance Institute, the decision was made due to the rising numbers of COVID cases across the country.

This came as a blow to many Utahns, who look forward to the glitz, glam, and art appreciation that come with the annual festival.

“A lot [of locals] look forward to seeing those movies and look forward to LA and New York being brought to Park City. Ten days of that big city feel, where you have celebrity chefs coming in and doing pop up restaurants and a lot of fun things, you don’t get to do in Park City the other 355 days a year,” says Brooks Kirchheimer, who owns and operates Hearth and Hill restaurant in Park City. “It’s a lot of fun, and especially for the youth, especially those that may be interested in the arts and entertainment, it’s an opportunity for them to get involved.”

But although COVID has prevented Sundance from taking place in Utah yet again, organizers are working to ensure that the festival stays true to its roots and continues to resonate with Utahns.

“Utah residents are always on our minds as we plan any Sundance Film Festival,” Yutani said. “We certainly missed going to Utah. A lot of our programming team is based in LA and we will miss being on the mountain.”

In order to stay relevant to Utahns, the Sundance Film Festival is offering nine free screenings for anyone residing in the state of Utah. Originally, the Sundance team had planned to offer only two free screenings for Utahns – one during the first weekend and one during the second – but amended the number given the festival’s recent pivot to virtual. Registration details for the screenings will be available on the Sundance Film Festival website beginning on Friday, January 14.

Sundance is also hoping to appeal to Utah audiences with their film selection, too. Yutani notes that one of the films she is most excited to see is called Summering, which was entirely shot in Utah. The film is by festival veteran James Ponsoldt, and is described by Yutani as “a Stand By Me type of film, but for girls.”

In addition, Sundance will continue their Student Screening Program, which focuses on providing Utah high schoolers with an opportunity to view films from the festival. Although the program, like the festival, has been held in person since it began, this year it will also be virtual.

“I will just miss being in the Eccles auditorium and seeing all the high schoolers in the hallways while I’m waiting to do my intros,” Yutani says with a wistful smile.

But even though COVID has rendered an in-person festival impossible yet again, as they say in show biz: the show must go on. We just hope that next year, that show can once again be in Utah.

Austin Facer contributed reporting for this article.