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

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

Sure, a prime hotel room at one of the town's swank resorts willcost you upwards of $450 a night and the festival's labyrinthineticketing system requires an advance team and precision timing. Yetit's entirely possible to find an affordable place to stay, movietickets, good food, and uncrowded spaces, even after the firstcurtain is lifted. You might even find yourself feigningnonchalance as you rub elbows with this year's It girl.

PLAN YOUR TRIP

Step 1: Choose your timing. The festival runs January 18 to28 in 2007, but the first half is for the industry. Better suitedfor the rest of us, the last half is when the crowds thin out,lodging opens up, and the festival gets closer to its indieorigins. Celebrities still roam the streets, but in week two― especially on weekdays ― the town can seem almostquiet.

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

Step 3: Get movie tickets. Festival passes and ticketpackages sold out months ago, but you can still buy individualtickets through Sundance's multistep ticketregistration (register by Jan 4). On January 5, you will begiven a website appointment for ordering tickets at $15 a pop. Ifyou miss out then, you can try for tickets at the festival byeither visiting the festival box office at 8 a.m. the day of ascreening (when any remaining tickets are released) or by gettingin the wait-list line an hour before the screening. Be smart andavoid celebrity vehicles and Friday night showings. Choose smallerfilms, documentaries, or morning screenings in larger venues likethe Eccles Center or Racquet Club Theatre. And skip the movies withlikely distribution deals; you can see those back at home. Visit www.sundance.org or call435/776-7878 for more ticket information.

WHILE YOU'RE THERE

Stargazing

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

Don't forget that other festival

Don't miss the short films screened at Slamdance, theeven-more-independent alternative to Sundance. With several filmspresented on a particular theme throughout the day, the GalleryShorts block program gives terrific variety and easy access to someseriously 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 thefinest ski destinations in the country. The Park City Mountain Resort runs a lift right fromMain St. and the slopes empty out on weekdays during the festival.800/222-7275.

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

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