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EXCLUSIVE: Atlanta is pursuing prestigious Sundance Film Festival

Savannah is also planning to put in a bid now that Sundance is considering leaving Utah in 2027.

People take photos beneath the Egyptian Theater marquee during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The festival said last week that it is seeking possible alternative cities to move to after 2026, and some in Atlanta want to take advantage. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Rodney Ho

April 27, 2024

Atlanta is planning to bid to be the new home of the Sundance Film Festival starting in 2027, according to Christopher Escobar, owner of the Plaza and Tara cinemas.

“This could be huge for us,” Escobar told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday before the start of The Atlanta Film Festival, which he produces. “The city of Atlanta is leading this. I’m trying to show them what the possibilities are.”

A spokesman for the city of Atlanta didn’t respond to the AJC seeking comment.

Sundance, which has been based out of Park City, Utah, since 1981, on Wednesday said it is seeking possible alternative cities to move to after its contract with the mountain resort town ends in 2026.

“They are making an honest and concerted effort to make sure before they sign another long-term deal, they look at other options,” Escobar said. “I expect this to be very competitive.”

Sundance is often considered the most prestigious film festival in the United States, its reputation nurtured and enhanced by actor Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, which supports independent artists.

Credit: Chris Pizzello

Robert Redford, seen here in 2015, is the founder of the Sundance Institute, which supports independent filmmakers. The Sundance Film Festival is considered the most prestigious film festival in the country. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP File)

Over 11 days in January, the 2024 Sundance festival featured 91 films and 60-plus shorts. More than 100,000 attended the event with 40% out of state, said Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and chief executive of Park City Chamber of Commerce during a press conference at the festival’s conclusion this year.

Dubbed the Sundance Film Festival since 1991, it has helped bolster the reputations of filmmakers over the years such as Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Ava DuVernay and David O. Russell.

“We have the hotel rooms,” Escobar said. “We’re home to the civil rights movement. We have the world’s busiest airport. We have the busiest theater in North America for its size in the Fox Theatre. We have huge private sector companies like Coke, Home Depot and Delta. If Atlanta wants it enough and makes this happen, I think we have an incredibly good shot.”

A special committee within the Sundance Institute, which runs the festival, is currently seeking interest via a preliminary Request for Information (RFI) from various cities with a deadline of May 1. The Sundance committee will cull the nominees down to a list of viable cities.

Atlanta will know if it makes the cut by May 6, said Escobar, who is currently chairing the lead Atlanta group for the RFI.

If it does, a host committee will be formed and Atlanta will start the Request for Proposal (RFP) process between May 7 and June 21.

A city will be named in late 2024 or early 2025, according to the institute.

“We are in a unique moment for our festival and our global film community, and with the contract up for renewal, this exploration allows us to responsibly consider how we best continue sustainably serving our community while maintaining the essence of the Festival experience,” Eugene Hernandez, director of the Sundance Film Festival and public programming, said in a news release.

Hilton Howell, chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Gray Television, which owns Assembly Studios in Doraville and the production company Swirl Films, said Atlanta would be a natural home for Sundance. “I hope it comes true,” he said in a text message. “I will do all I can to bring Sundance to my home. I’m very proud we are competing for this prize.”

Dan Rosenfelt, who operates Electric Owl Studios in Atlanta, said the festival would enhance the city’s already deepening connections to the film industry as a production hub. “Actors of all types will already be here filming so they can easily attend the festival,” he noted. “We have a vibrant independent filmmaking ecosystem here already, so it’d be a really nice fit.”

Savannah is also pitching itself as a potential new home to Sundance, according to Randy Davidson, who runs Georgia Entertainment News.

“Savannah would be similar to the current festival in the sense that the geographic layout could be contained to the historic district,” Davidson said. “The walkable and connected facet of Savannah will be the most attractive angle for Sundance officials with condensed high quality lodging options.”

The city’s primary downside, he noted, is more limited flight options out of its airport compared to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

Two other cities have publicly stated they may bid as well: San Francisco and Minneapolis.

In the end, the film festival could very well stay in Park City if the city provides a strong enough proposal.

“To be clear, this does not mean that we are moving or have made a decision to move,” a Sundance spokesperson told The Washington Post. “This includes Utah, given the festival’s long-standing relationship, and we absolutely encourage them to be a part of this process with us.”

The festival in 2023 generated an estimated $118 million to Utah’s economy, according to data released by the state.

About the Author

Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.

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