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Sundance accused of theft amid refund controversy

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The Sundance Film Festival has refused to issue refunds to patrons after switching the event to online only (Image by Dan Jensen)

One of the world's most celebrated film festivals is being accused of theft for refusing to issue refunds over false advertising, writes Dan Jensen.

THE SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL is another in the growing list of casualties of the sweeping Omicron variant. For the second year in a row, organisers decided that the risk factor was too great to hold the festival as an in-person event and only 15 days before it was scheduled to start, alerted patrons that it would be an online event only.

But this year’s event has been met with further complications now that many ticket holders are accusing Sundance of theft and false advertising.

Tickets had initially gone on sale in December 2021 for a hybrid event — incorporating both online and social events. Attendees were required to be fully vaccinated, tested negative for COVID-19 and comply with mask protocols. Knowing the risks involved, eager filmgoers purchased packages that included several tickets to screenings, some costing as much as U.S.$750 (AU$1,046).

At the time ticket sales were launched, Sundance Festival director Tabitha Jackson had promised buyers a rewarding experience, saying:

“The 2022 festival is not a return to form, but rather something new, adventurous and entirely true to our spirit of accessible discovery — and that’s bound to feel slightly challenging as we try to prepare for every eventuality.”

But while many felt frustration over the event’s shift to digital, this was turned to anger when ticket holders discovered refunds would not be given to those who had spent money to attend the event in person. Instead, Sundance offered patrons the opportunity to either gift their packages to others or turn the money spent into a tax-deductible donation to the Sundance Institute itself.

An email sent to those who enquired about getting their money back stated:

‘At the time of purchase, all products were noted as non-refundable on the ticketing page and in the terms and conditions. We are not able to give refunds on non-refundable products.’

Immediately, patrons turned to social media to vent their frustration at having been swindled by the festival, some comparing the situation to the fraudulent Fyre Festival. Those who had paid for the most expensive packages were claiming that the price was far too steep to be watching films at home and missing out on the social element.

There was also outrage at the festival organisers having cheated patrons by offering a product on which they couldn’t deliver.

It's unclear how many tickets had been sold for this year’s festival, but according to the Sundance Institute, the 2021 online version of the event saw a record number of sales:

‘The seven-day Festival reached a total audience 2.7 times larger than at the typical 11-day Utah edition…

 

This results in a total of audience views of more than 600,000 — 2.7 times (168%) more than in 2020.’

The change of Sundance’s format not only affected filmgoers, but at least one volunteer as well. Atlanta film student Niska Encalade had volunteered to work at the festival and arranged travel and accommodation only to learn that the hotel she had booked was refusing to refund her money, instead insisting that she come and stay regardless.

Encalade said:

“Everybody in my family put in money to help get me there, you know, so I was really looking forward to the event, to network and to show off my skills as a film student, someone that wants to be in the industry.”

Utah film critic Rachel Wagner was one of many stung by Sundance’s refusal to issue refunds. Having spent U.S.$400 (AU$557) expecting to be attending films in person, she was ‘angry and felt betrayed after supporting the festival passionately since 2016’.

The organisers also made her process of transferring the tickets to a friend cumbersome, especially having bought a package with multiple tickets. They also refused to provide assistance.

Wagner said:

‘I did try to contact them but was told they would pass my “feedback” on. I was told I could make the money a donation which is insulting, or I could transfer the tickets to a friend. But the catch is I have to transfer each ticket individually because pass transfer has to happen at time of sale. Of course, I thought I'd be attending the festival at time of sale.’

Sundance has become the largest independent film festival in the United States since its creation in 1978. It has grown a solid reputation over the years and launched the careers of several Hollywood A-list directors including Quentin Tarantino. But this year’s situation has tarnished the Sundance name and left many ticketholders vowing never to return again.

Rachel Wagner shared the sentiments of those burned by the refusal to refund her money:

‘It has impacted my excitement for the festival. I am trying to get over that because it's not fair to the filmmakers, but I feel taken advantage of. They had to have known in December this was a possibility, but they pushed forward and took everyone's money anyway.’

IA contacted Sundance for a comment but had not heard back at the time of publication.

You can follow digital editor Dan Jensen on Twitter @danjensenmovies or check out his YouTube channel, Movie Talk with Dan Jensen.

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