Sundance savvy

How to book tickets, get a room, and hit the scene: Sunset's guide to the most enjoyable film festival in the world

Amy Traverso

For all the buzz around the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah ― all the velvet-rope swag boutiques, the Hilton-sister sightings, the private after-parties, and the backroom distribution deals ― the festival has a surprising little secret: Civilians are welcome.

Sure, a prime hotel room at one of the town's swank resorts will cost you upwards of $450 a night and the festival's labyrinthine ticketing system requires an advance team and precision timing. Yet it's entirely possible to find an affordable place to stay, movie tickets, good food, and uncrowded spaces, even after the first curtain is lifted. You might even find yourself feigning nonchalance as you rub elbows with this year's It girl.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

Step 1: Choose your timing. The festival runs January 18 to 28 in 2007, but the first half is for the industry. Better suited for the rest of us, the last half is when the crowds thin out, lodging opens up, and the festival gets closer to its indie origins. Celebrities still roam the streets, but in week two ― especially on weekdays ― the town can seem almost quiet.

Step 2: Find lodging. Forget the overpriced hotels: Park City is a ski town, and that means there's an ample supply of condos to rent. Sharing a two- or three-bedroom place has the double advantage of saving money on lodging and on meals. For example, in January 2006 we went online and found a two-bedroom slopeside condo within walking distance to town for $350 a night. At $175 per couple, it was a relative bargain. And if you're willing to stay outside of town ― such as at the Canyons or Deer Valley Resorts ― prices can drop by $100 per night. (Word to the wise, though: In-town parking spaces are few and far between, and while many resorts run shuttles into town, some movie venues are far-flung. You'll need to plan ahead in order to sync up with the festival shuttle that runs between venues.) Your best strategy is to keep a close eye on Craigslist, where last-minute deals are posted right through the festival. Meanwhile, the Park City Chamber of Commerce (800/453-1360) has a complete list of lodging options on its website and acts as an informal clearinghouse for last-minute vacancies in the weeks leading up to the festival.

Step 3: Get movie tickets. Festival passes and ticket packages sold out months ago, but you can still buy individual tickets through Sundance's multistep ticket registration (register by Jan 4). On January 5, you will be given a website appointment for ordering tickets at $15 a pop. If you miss out then, you can try for tickets at the festival by either visiting the festival box office at 8 a.m. the day of a screening (when any remaining tickets are released) or by getting in the wait-list line an hour before the screening. Be smart and avoid celebrity vehicles and Friday night showings. Choose smaller films, documentaries, or morning screenings in larger venues like the Eccles Center or Racquet Club Theatre. And skip the movies with likely distribution deals; you can see those back at home. Visit www.sundance.org or call 435/776-7878 for more ticket information.

WHILE YOU'RE THERE

Stargazing

If you want to spot some famous mugs, remember this: Celebrities love the free goodies. Wait outside the swag salons clustered around the Town Lift and the Egyptian Theatre, both on Main Street, and watch the free exchange of cocktails, Xbox 360s, and wrinkle creams. You can spy the action over a cup of coffee in the window seats at Cisero's Ristorante ( $$$; 306 Main St.; 435/649-5044). Or snag a reservation at Zoom ( $$$$; 660 Main; 435/649-9108), a Robert Redford-owned hot spot where the beautiful people like to eat ― or pretend to eat. Or you can stargaze over the haute Southwestern fare at Chimayo ( $$$$; 368 Main; 435/649-6222).

Don't forget that other festival

Don't miss the short films screened at Slamdance, the even-more-independent alternative to Sundance. With several films presented on a particular theme throughout the day, the Gallery Shorts block program gives terrific variety and easy access to some seriously talented filmmakers. Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main; 435/658-0460.

There's always skiing

Have some time to kill? Don't forget that you're in one of the finest ski destinations in the country. The Park City Mountain Resort runs a lift right from Main St. and the slopes empty out on weekdays during the festival. 800/222-7275.

MORE: Hit the slopes at the West's top 10 ski resorts