Every year a little ski town in Park City, Utah, turns into a week-long camp for Hollywood types. Originally, it was created to showcase independent filmmakers who wouldn't otherwise have access to distributors, but these days it's a whole other beast. Movies have taken a back seat to celebrity DJs, events sponsored by hummus chips, and exclusive guest lists that nobody is really on.
Before this year, I had seen photos of Paris Hilton in Ugg boots, the "T-Mobile sponsored party pictures" in Us Weekly, and the olive branches stamped on movie posters for "Precious" and this year's Oscar nominated "Winter's Bone." But this year, I got to see what really goes on at the festival first hand. I arrived in Utah prepared to see oddities (like Paris Hilton in Ugg boots), but what I discovered was stranger than that. Here's a sampling:
1. Grown men and women act like sherpas for teenagers.
Stepping off the plane in Salt Lake, the first indication of the hierarchy of Sundance was at baggage claim. Young people with good skin, sunglasses, and expensive-looking ski outfits parted from the older people they were with at the conveyor belt to wait in their chauffeured car. Hot, young actor types apparently don't do baggage claim.
Schwag from the Superdry sponsored party2. There's a chance to win thousands of prizes.
Although there are hundreds of movies playing throughout Park City, many people come for the free stuff. Just leaving my motel room, I garnered two free Luna bars, hand sanitizer, a baseball cap and all the seltzer I could drink (thank you, Marriott). But if you're, say, Mischa Barton or one clever lady I met at the "Superdry Hospitality Lounge," you could go home with several thousand dollars worth of booty. Describing herself as a horror movie actress, a pretty, L.A.-based brunette befriended a young woman in charge of doling out free sporting gear for the Sundance "talent." This actress was not the "talent," but that didn't stop her from walking away with a bag full of stuff. She told me she comes to the festival every year just to collect prizes after laying the groundwork back home. "What you have to do is buy a notebook before you arrive, so you can write down every gifting publicists' name and contact info so you can follow up with thank you notes," she advised. Her follow-up each year has won over those in charge of giving free stuff to stars: "This year I got four days at the W Hotel in Fort Lauderdale," she said. She's also gotten a year's free pass to movies at any AMC theater nationwide and unlimited free food and drinks for four at Johnny Rockets, anytime, all year long. That of course pales in comparison to the $8,000 worth of Mouawad diamond jewelry handed out this week to more famous types like Jenny McCarthy and Milla Jovovich.
3. People call these prizes by a strange name.
To outsiders, the term for free booty is "swag," but everyone seems to call it "Schwag" at Sundance. You know, like the Yiddish term for "trinket." Initially, I thought they were talking about cheap weed, but they're actually referring to all of the free clothing, ski equipment, designers shoes that they cavalierly amass.
Emma Roberts and I had different experiences at Sundance. (Wire Image) 4. Women under 25 rule.
The film industry may be dominated by men, and there's no shortage of testosterone-dripping producer types and scruffy, addled film directors. But young women have all the power here. There are the beautiful young starlets who bait photographers and therefore have an all-access pass to every movie, party, and gifting suite in town. And then there are the the beautiful young publicists who guard the exclusive parties and gifting suites, holding a clipboard and turning down 99 percent of people claiming to be "on the list." Those 99 percent turned down? Ninety-nine percent men.
5. Creating buzz for your low-budget movie requires a PhD in gigolo.
If your movie doesn't have big-name stars, it's harder to pack the house for screenings. That means getting patrons to buy tickets for your film is a no-holds-barred ordeal. I learned this the hard way, over and over again. Hot men caught my eye across the room and boldly approached me with flirtatious smiles, questions about my background, and compliments on my Timberlands. And, just when I've miraculously recovered my mojo from 1997, they hand me a card to their movie and walk away... only to repeat the drill with the next sucker in sight. It's not a good feeling.
6. People wear sunglasses inside.
It's very unnecessary.
7. It's a sex-fest.
It's no secret that this place is like camp for Hollywood folks. "People have their guard down here, unlike in L.A." explained my new horror movie actress friend/swag expert-she'd been entertaining a possible romance with a guy whose fiancee was back in L.A. Like conferences and Las Vegas, this place has a "doesn't count" clause. Hookups are part of the culture of collecting things, be it swag bags or belt notches. A late-night, underground orgy reportedly took place the night before I arrived (dang it). And, come 11 p.m., you'd be hard pressed not to find two total strangers making out in a booth at any given party on Main Street. How did we know they were total strangers? Coats. Despite being indoors, several make-out partners kept their parkas on during tongue battle, not ready to commit.
8. Snow boots are status symbols.
On the Oscar red carpet, a borrowed Oscar De La Renta dress may be a sign of a celebrity's high status. But here, it's all about the snow boots. Since people are wrapped in full-length parkas, the only way to be a peacock is with your feet. The chunkier, fringier, and more equipped for Antarctica, the more fabulous the wearer. This year, the shoe to have was the limited edition Sorel boot. The coveted boots were given out to A-listers. If you were medium-important, you could get a discount and buy the boots yourself. If you were really hungry, you could partake in a scavenger hunt created for normal Sundance-goers by the company. And if you were me, you were just happy to have waterproof shoes.
Love Paul Rudd, but doesn't he seem a little annoyed with all this free stuff he has to …9. People find it sooooo annoying to go to movies and parties for work.
There are people who buy tickets to attend Sundance because it's fun: It's in a pretty town with free transportation, and great movies are playing all week. I met several self-described movie tourists from all parts of the country who attended for vacation. But the people who come here for work-producers, publicists, handlers, and celebs-do a lot of hemming and hawing about their responsibilities. Those responsibilities include going to movies, eating, and drinking. There is an element of hustling, but it pales in comparison to the jobs the local Park City residents do here. Shuttle bus drivers, waiters, and shop workers double their hours and manage an influx of high-maintenance patrons accustomed to shouting at anyone who will take it. Despite all that, most hard-working residents are cheerful and grateful for the economic boost in their town. In contrast, industry types are "exhausted," "getting sick" and planning to "take time off" after this whole thing is finaaaaally over.
10. Real, genuine, famous people are like leprechauns.
People talk a lot about celebrities. It's impossible to walk down the street and not hear a conversation about a star spotted in town. Here are the stars I've overheard were in Park City: 50 Cent (possibly), Oprah (highly doubtful), Terrence Howard, James Franco, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Susan Sarandon, Zooey Deschenel (She's really grounded, says some dude who was talking incessantly about her at a bar). Here's who I've actually spotted: Zach from "Real World: Key West" and Donovan Leitch.
Tenley and Kipton probably got free Sorel boots. (Wire Image)11. Reality stars are easier to spot, but no less important.
Tenley from "The Bachelor" created a near-riot for paparazzi when she attended one event in town. "What brand of jeans are you wearing?" could be heard from the madding crowd. And did I mention I saw Zach from "Real World: Key West"? He was holding court at an exclusive gifting lodge, surrounded by women.
12. Restaurants appear to be dominated by cults.
It's really hard to get a table anywhere during normal eating hours because producers block off tables of 20 for their film's cast and crew. With most of the table consisting of producer types over 40 and a sprinkling of dewy, beautiful young actors under 20, there is very little dinner party interaction. The oldest, usually a man, holds court shoveling food into his maw while the young actors stare off into space, barely touching their meals. If it weren't a film festival, it's the kind of scene you'd report to local police for further investigation.
13. There exists here a thing called "Karaoke Taxi."
Some genius Park City local came up with the idea of combining a karaoke club with a taxi ride home. Nobel Prize judges, listen up: It costs the same as a standard cab, but you get a microphone and an iPod with a solid collection of oldies when you enter the van so you can sing your way home at the end of the night. Everyone else can take their Sorel boots, diamonds, and blockbuster movie bids back with them at the end of the week; I'm taking this concept home with me to New York. Anyone want to invest?
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