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Sundance's 2021 film festival coming to downtown Iowa City's FilmScene theatre


Isaac Hamlet   | Iowa City Press-Citizen

Attending typical festivals and movie screenings is still a precarious proposition, so the Sundance Film Festival has partnered with theaters across America to do something new in 2021.

"Even under these impossible circumstances, artists are still finding paths to make bold and vital work in whatever ways they can," Tabitha Jackson, next year's Sundance Festival Director said in a news release. "So Sundance, as a festival of discovery, will bring that work to its first audiences in whatever ways we can."

The festival announced Tuesday that Iowa City's FilmScene will be one of more than 30 theaters across the country to take part in a revised version of the 2021 event next month.

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This event will be less centralized, distributed between these local satellite theaters. Of these 30-odd satellite locations, FilmScene represents the only movie theater in the state included in the festival.

"They decided to use their considerable weight in the industry to expand their borders rather than contract," FilmScene founder Andrew Sherburne told the Press-Citizen. "We’ve been talking since early summer about what this might look like."

The festival is scheduled to run across four days, from Jan. 28 through Feb. 3. In addition to the satellite theaters, the festival will also provide an online platform to view the yet-to-be-announced films, at festival.sundance.org.

"We’ve talked about films they have (and) what films have been successful with us in the past — areas of interest for Iowa City," Rebecca Fons, FilmScene's programming director, said of the process of selecting which movies will appear on FilmScene screens during the event.

Though not all of the Sundance satellite locations are planning in-person programming, FilmScene currently plans to be one of those that will. How many films will be shown and how many people will be able to attend in-person is expected to fluctuate with the state of the world.

Right now, Fons expects 7-10 titles will be screened over the four-day period at the FilmScene at The Chauncey, 404 E. College St. #100; the more enclosed FilmScene on The Ped Mall, 118 E. College St., is expected to still be closed when the festival is held.

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Organizers are encouraging groups interested in attending to apply for tickets online. Organizers say their hope is that by encouraging attendance by social pods who have already been exposed to one another, they can limit the potential spread of COVID-19 at the films' screenings.

Prior to Tuesday's announcement, the theater has done very little in-person programming since March outside of the in-person private theater rentals offered over the past few months.

“We’ve been doing private rentals that have given us practice interacting with community and patrons," Fons said. "We’ve had thousands of individual people taking advantage of our (screening program) and we haven’t had any instance of COVID."

Through June and July, the theater had a few false starts regarding re-opening plans before ultimately deciding to remain closed to the public for the remainder of the year.

In late July and August, the theater planned a series of five outdoor screenings of classic films, but the Aug. 28 screening of "Jaws," which was to the last in the series, was canceled due to soaring COVID-19 positivity rates in the area at the time.

That same weekend, Marcus Theatre began reopening local movie theaters.

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The COVID safety rules implemented at FilmScene will be similar to those they intended for earlier reopenings, but will also reflect state mandates and be adjusted accordingly as the festival nears.

“It’s definitely an honor and it’s a bit humbling," Sherburne said of being one of the couple dozen theaters tagged by Sundance to participate in the event. "I think it reflects what we’ve always intended on building here in Iowa City — we wanted to create a landmark home for cinema.

"This is not the only measure of how we’ve done that, but it’s a measure."

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at ihamlet@press-citizen.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.