People stand in line at the Sundance Film Festival in front of the Egyptian Marquee building. A yellow Sundance Film Festival banner flies overhead.
Sundance, Egyptian Marquee, 2015. Photo credit: Jamel Countess

On May 6, screenwriter Scott Meyers tweeted an article from “The Hollywood Reporter,” entitled “Was Sundance the ‘First Petri Dish’ of Coronavirus in the States?” A few days after attending Sundance Film Festival 2020, I woke up one morning thinking I was having a heart attack. Massive pain in my chest. Hard to breathe. Went to the emergency room. Not heart related, something with my lungs. Maybe coronavirus?

In a subsequent tweet, he also mentions he had a terrible dry cough before he attended the festival. Meyers is not the only Sundance attendee to report a severe mysterious illness after the ten-day annual independent film festival founded by actor Robert Redford. It takes place each January in Park City, Utah, U.S.A.

“The Hollywood Reporter” spoke with a dozen attendees on- and off-record about becoming ill following Sundance. U.S. Actress Ashley Jackson and “The Black List” founder Franklin Leonard (U.S. film executive,) reported severe illness with symptoms that matched COVID-19. It’s not uncommon for people to be sick after Sundance. With all the partying, the winter climate, the handshaking, and the business card exchanging, there are plenty of ways to catch a bug.

Any illness caught is affectionately known as “The Sundance Flu.” But was the novel coronavirus an uninvited guest this year? There is no official report that the virus was circulating in Park City Jan. 23-Feb. 2, and Utah’s first reported case of COVID-19 wasn’t announced until March 6. Attendees on social media complained of being “the sickest I have ever been” but there currently is no hard evidence that Sundance was a super spreader event, only speculation.

Egyptian Theatre Marquee in Snow, 2006. Photo credit: George Pimentel 


According to Dr. Angela Dunn Utah’s state epidemiologist, “It’s definitely possible that COVID-19 was circulating at Sundance.”At this point, there is no way to be sure. More than half of the event attendees are from Utah so a non-scientific conclusion is if Sundance were a super spreader site, many more Utahans would have gotten sick. However, due to limited U.S. testing capabilities, there is no way to be sure. We can only operate on the data points available and there are not enough data to say one way or the other, which is why Dunn’s statement of possibility is really the only answer.

For many filmmakers, premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2020 is a career highlight and launchpad. Those in attendance were riding high on waves only to crash to shore when they arrived home to find other film festivals canceled or moved to digital events. Distribution deals were placed on hold and filming had to stop altogether with no date to resume.

Though this year’s festival was the most diverse lineup in Sundance’s 35-year history, many artists fear the progress made in creating inclusive content will be put on the back burner as the film industry collectively tries to figure out what is coming next.

Unproven formulas and new experimental works will undoubtedly take a back seat in an industry that is not only about art, but also money. Rhyan LaMarr, a Chicago-based artist, filmmaker, and musician is sure this period in history will separate the true artists from those that have gotten too caught up in the money. To his point, many filmmakers are now able to finish projects they haven’t had time for and launch new projects as we all are forced to become more creative.

New York City-based filmmaker Tanya Perez is feeling the pain of losing work, but hopes that other artists are able to follow her lead in “tapping into this creative incubation to heal, rest and explore ways to innovate storytelling post-COVID.”

The way we will tell stories will no doubt undergo a transformation as we continue to navigate this global pandemic. What will not change is the desire to share and create art for humankind, so for that reason, artists must keep their hopes alive.

Main Street Atmosphere, 2016. Photo credit: Jonathan Hickerson

by Rebekah Henderson


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