Notes from Sundance: Escape rooms, will.i.am and Kevin Smith, and a brand-new Frankenstein


by Jenniffer Wardell

In addition to the festival’s spate of movies, there’s a whole additional world of Sundance fun that happens up in Park City. From panels and art experiences to celebrity spotting, you’ll have a full day without seeing a single movie (many activities open only to credential holders, which is a really good reason to become a Sundance Film Festival volunteer.)

-SundanceTV decided to do something a little different this year with their brand-new escape room, based on the Sundance Channel show “Hap and Leonard.” The idea behind the room is that you’re trapped in a small southern town from the upcoming season of the show, and the sheriff is hot on your tail and wants you dead. You need enough gas to get out of town, but in order to get it you need to find something special the had station attendees want. More importantly, you need to find it before the sheriff catches up to you, which will be in exactly 15 minutes.

My group and I were hopeless when we first went in, but with some help from the hilariously redneck gas station attendees we finally got the ball rolling. Teamwork is vitally important, as it is in all the best escape rooms, and even though the challenges were complicated there was always someone who figured it out. All together, the results were exciting, a little stressful, and incredibly fun.

– The first Cinema Cafe of the year, featuring will.i.am and Kevin Smith, brought in an audience big enough to pack the Filmmaker Lodge to the rafters. To the sounds of regular laughter from the audience, the duo talked about the future of entertainment, dealing with social media, and encouraging young creators.

-“Virtual reality is the new television,” said will.i.am. “There’s just no forum for it. It’s the wild, wild west.”

-“If you’re ever going to make stuff, you’re going to have to deal with someone going ‘that blows,’” said Smith. “Once you open the door to the fanbase, you open the door to people who just want (stuff) to burn. It’s just part of the process.”

-“There’s no recipe for success,” said will.i.am. “You have to go out and make your own. You really have to go out there and cut the tundra yourself. You have to build up the calluses.”

-“Failure is literally success training,” said Smith. “No one gets it right on the first try.”

– The festival’s New Frontier collection was scheduled a little differently this year, with different sub-categories in different locations. This year, the larger exhibitions were at the Kimball Art Center (accessible via the festival’s shuttle system) and one of the most interesting is “Frankenstein AI: A Monster Made By Many.” The project, which began in the Columbia University School of Arts Digital Storytelling Lab, features a genuine artificial intelligence that learns and grows from the audience.

I don’t want to reveal too much about what happens in the experience, but I will say that it sneaks up on you. In the end, “Frankenstein AI” offers both a fascinating, ultimately moving look at what it means to be human and how we all learn and grow from each other. For more information about this and other New Frontier experiences, visit sundance.org/festivals/sundance-film-festival/program/NFA-guide#.

– Celebrity spotting remains an eternal festival hobby, though the first rule is always that you can’t bother them or make a fuss. There are a variety of events and venues during the festival that always promise big-name guests, including the MACRO Lodge. Though I wasn’t there at the same time as any of the celebrities who stopped by (including “Thor: Ragnarok’s” Tessa Thompson), I did get great food and the chance to sample the awesome moisturizers made by sponsor Shea Moisture. Even better, Shea Moisture helps fight poverty by donating 10 percent of proceeds to women-led businesses, the Sofi Tucker Foundation, and fighting poverty in communities that provide materials for their products.

If you can’t make it into a venue, one of the most reliable ways of spotting a star is to simply stand at the intersection of Main and Heber and watch the crowds go by. It’s also a good idea to keep your ears open – I caught sight of Rose Byrne, the most famous name I laid eyes on at this year’s fest, because I heard her voice first.

(Cutline: The gas station attendants from the SundanceTV escape room. Photo by Jenniffer Wardell)

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