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Sundance At Home: Iowa City’s FilmScene Hosts Satellite Film Festival

Sundance Institute

For nearly 40 years, Utah has been home to the world-renowned Sundance Film Festival. However, like many annual events, the coronavirus pandemic presented a challenge. Rather than cancel the event, festival organizers adapted their structure and partnered with movie theaters across the country to host satellite screenings.

FilmScene, a nonprofit cinema in Iowa City, was selected to be one of 28 partners to host the festival remotely.

From Jan. 28 to Feb. 1, FilmScene screened new movies in person and virtually. The screenings were accompanied by online discussions and interviews with cast and crew members, which were open to the public.

Rebecca Fons, FilmScene’s programming director, said their theater was handpicked by Sundance to host the event. FilmScene was the only movie theater in Iowa to serve as a satellite partner and was one of only three in the Midwest.

“FilmScene's participation in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival as a satellite screen was an honor, and it was a recognition of the quality programming and operations we're so proud of doing year-round,” Fons said. “We worked hard and creatively to offer in-person screening safely, and we crafted thoughtful virtual conversations around the festival's lineup.”

Over the course of the five-day festival, FilmScene hosted 193 individuals at the Chauncey, their three-screen venue, while approximately 500 individuals purchased virtual screening tickets, according to Fons.

Virtual programming was curated by FilmScene and Sundance, which gave participants the opportunity to hear from those involved with the making of each movie, as well as engage socially with other festival-goers.

FilmScene patrons Ben and Dina Dillon attended several online events and screenings through the festival.

“We joined nightly get-togethers that FilmScene threw via Zoom. We’d get online and talk about what people were watching, their impressions, what they were excited about [and] looking forward to,” Ben Dillon said. “This was the thing that really took the experience to the next level.

“This is one of those moments where we get to look at the bright side of the pandemic,” Dillon added. “It’s forcing events like this to think in new ways, and the result was thousands of people from around the world were able to be a part of it who never would get the experience in person.”

One of the most buzzworthy new releases from the festival weekend was “Judas and the Black Messiah,” starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield. The highly-anticipated biopic about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton premiered at the festival on Feb. 1. Since then, the film has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards. It will be available to stream on HBO Max for a limited time beginning Friday, Feb. 12.

According to Fons, FilmScene is looking forward to partnering with more major film festivals in the future.

“[It] was a wonderful testament to the passion we all have for film, and for our audiences,” Fons said.

Dillon said he looks forward to future festival partnerships in Iowa City, which he believes strengthen the local film community.

“Having the local connection with FilmScene really made it special, as well,” Dillon said. “It will be interesting to see where they take this in the future — offering satellite festivals once we can all watch movies in the theater together again would be amazing.”

Nicole Baxter is a Sponsorship Coordinator and covers film as a contributing writer for Iowa Public Radio.