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Sundance Next Fest: A Weekend of Movies, Music and Mischief in LA With Your Best Friends From Utah

This weekend, The Sundance Institute brought a bite-sized portion of their flagship festival for the fifth year with Sundance Next Fest. Acting as an extended limb of sorts for the “Next” category in Utah’s premiere festival, the weekend showcased a wide array of upcoming visionary talent. From Janicsza Bravo’s Brett Gelman vehicle Lemon, to Marvin Lemus’ episodic tribute to Boyle Heights in Genti-Fied.

That wasn’t all the fest offered, as each screening involved, as the festival puts it, some sort of “music” or “mischief” (or both!). Some screenings ended with a concert from acts such as Sleigh Bells and Electric Guest, some featured comedians such as Kate Micucci and Natasha Leggero. Certain screenings also served as a vehicle to world premiere select music videos from acts like M83 and Hundred Waters, and that’s not even touching on the brilliant panels and discussions including guests such as Larry Wilmore and Ava DuVernay.

The end result was a culmination of expertly curated shows that promised a completely fresh experience each time. Some would come for the Sundance selected film and receive an extra show, some would come for their favorite band and get an extra film to walk home with, and some had no idea what they were in for. Excited fans dawning Lizzo t-shirts were scattered across the crowd for Lemon, in order to get the chance to see their favorite artist play, which was lucky for them, because the live musical performances at Next Fest were incredibly intimate.

No security stood separating fans from the stage, so the opportunity to stand inches away from the performers was readily available. Alexis Krauss, lead singer of Sleigh Bells, grabbed me by my hair and threw a microphone in my face standing right in front of the stage, but unfortunately, I knew none of the words, so I screamed absolute nonsense. I had no “special” ticket, and there were no gates I snuck by. The opportunity was just there because Sundance created it. Once the show started, everyone was all part of the same audience, and that audience was incredibly fortunate to all be together in a really unique opportunity.

The fest kicked off honoring Quentin Tarantino with their Vanguard Leadership Award, followed by a 35mm screening of Reservoir Dogs for its’ 25th anniversary. We covered that event much more in depth here, but it’s certainly worth mentioning as it served as an incredibly grandiose and welcoming entry-way into the rest of the fest.

If there’s one piece to take away from what Sundance crafted this weekend, it’s that they really care about the experience. From the moment you walked into The Theatre at Ace Hotel, after waiting under a brilliantly illuminated classical marquee sign, you were greeted by volunteers, and granted access into one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous theatres Los Angeles has to offer. Festival-goers were invited to take self portraits of themselves (which they could send to their devices with a “Sundance Next Fest” logo), and a full bar with drinks and snacks was offered. Volunteers wearing pink t-shirts stood readily available feet away essentially wherever you were throughout the night.

Any screening on their 8 premiere-film lineup, the Institute crafted the perfect experience. “Do you think Joey Bada$$ is going to be here?” I heard one guest ask her friend, while selecting her seats near the front row of the auditorium for a screening of Gook. He wasn’t, but she was treated to the world premiere of the music video for his song “Temptation,” dealing with thematic similarities to the film. Afterwards, I heard the same person in a heated debate about the film they just witnessed (which was incredible, by the way). She came just for the music video of an artist she liked, and left on a completely different note than she anticipated.

From there, everyone who purchased a ticket was invited into the Next Door lounge, a constant hotbed of social activity that also offered quite a bit more. Each wristband (provided among entry if 21+) came with 3 drink tickets, where one could choose from a variety of options, including craft beer and cider from Stella Artois, and fine liquor from Slow & Low. Acura offered a VR experience, you could speak to a Los Angeles Times reporter, a food truck was available, and much, much more. At this point, it goes without saying, but the Institute clearly put a lot of effort into making festival-goers really feel like they’re part of something special.

I saw John Cooper (director of Sundance) many times, walking around, speaking with the people that came out to attend. There is no hierarchy once the after-screening event happens, no VIP section, and with three free drink tickets, no one left out. Even if you went alone, it was so remarkably easy to meet new people, as everyone was all dropped in the same, welcoming situation.

“It just seemed like a fun time, I didn’t really look into it too much” one woman proudly exclaimed to me while waiting in line for Bitch. “At the very least, I figured I can brag to my friends that I got to see this [movie] before them.” The temperature is perfect and there’s a certain excitement in the air that never quite leaves until the lights are switched off Sunday night at the final Next Door after-party.

This is exactly what Next Fest, and what The Sundance Institute is all about, and what I have come to learn and appreciate about what they have built. At this point, Sundance is about including you in the fun – giving you the earliest access to what’s next in the entertainment industry, and you trust them to give you something new. Instead of just a film, you were treated to a film, a show, a music video, a discussion, and/or a comedian, and then you were taken right next door for drinks. It feels like a close friend, showing you some of his favorite stuff, and listening to what you have to say about it. All right in your own neighborhood. You didn’t even have to go to Utah to see them this time!

I look very forward to what The Sundance Institute has to offer for next year’s Next Fest, and in the meantime, will of course be excited for what’s in store for their flagship, two week festival in Park City, Utah this January.


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