So this year, Sundance organizers are introducing a high-tech version of the wait-list system one they hope will keep moviegoers from shivering too much.
"We're always looking for ways of making the festival more experientially positive," festival director John Cooper said. "I know people never mind doing the wait-list, but there's got to be another way using technology."
Under the old system, which Sundance has used for years, it worked like this: A moviegoer would get in line two hours before showtime, be given a paper slip with a number representing his or her place in line (called a Q number), leave for awhile, then come back to the theater 30 minutes before the show and hope there are enough empty seats in the theater.
"We get those lines that show up really early," said Jackie Landry, Sundance's senior manager of theater operations. "We don't have the space to accommodate them."
Over the summer, Landry and David Sabour, Sundance's manager of ticketing systems, started brainstorming among the Sundance staff to find a new system. What they came up with, developed by the Vancouver, B.C., digital firm Intergalactic Agency Inc., is an electronic wait-list system accessible via the Internet by smartphone, tablet or computer.
To use the new system, first a moviegoer must register on the Sundance website (ewaitlist.sundance.org), and get the free mobile app. (If you don't have a mobile device, the festival will direct you to computer stations available at various locations. The old numbering system will no longer be in use.)
On the app, one can see what movies are starting in a two-hour window. One selects a film, and gets a wait-list Q number. The moviegoer shows up at the theater 30 minutes before showtime and gets in line with the other Q-number holders, just like the old system.
The system only lets a patron select one movie at a time, so don't try squatting on several wait-lists and choosing the best one. The system shows how many empty seats are estimated to be available at each theater, letting patrons see how likely they are to get into a particular screening. And friends can link their accounts, so they can get onto a particular wait-list together.
Sabour and Landry said the new system has been tested thoroughly, and they think it can handle the traffic of thousands of eager festivalgoers. But they know not to get too confident until the festival is going at full steam. (Can you say "Obamacare website"?)
The new system may end the stress of waiting hours in the same spot, but it does retain a feature of the wait-list system all veteran festivalgoers love: The chance meetings in line with other movie lovers.
"It's really fun camping out with a bunch of fellow film-lovers and getting to know them," Murdoch said. "One of my favorite parts about the festival is the people you meet, and nothing serves as a better social opportunity than waiting … in line with them."
Cooper envisions a possible side effect from the new system. "All the nearby coffee shops are going to feel an influx of business," he said.
Tips and tricks
Want to survive and thrive at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival? Take a little advice:
Get up early • Every morning at 8 a.m., the Sundance box offices in Park City (at the Gateway Center, 136 Heber Ave.) and Salt Lake City (in Trolley Square) release a few tickets for that day's films (and for the early-morning shows the following day). Day-of-show tickets must be bought in person (no online sales) at least two hours before the screening.
Fake a cough • In other words, skip work. Weekday matinees are usually easier to get into than a Saturday night show.
Don't be a star chaser • Even if you get into a screening for a star-studded movie, the odds you'll get anywhere near the stars are remote. Better to skip the Premieres program, because those movies will show up in theaters or on Netflix in a few months, and seek out the strange-sounding titles that will never come this way again.
Be chatty • Talking to other movie lovers, in the wait-list lines or on the shuttle buses, is one of the great joys of Sundance. A few marriages actually have started that way.
Like something? Say so • If you see a nervous-looking young person pacing the lobby, odds are he or she directed a short film playing inside. If you liked the short, tell that to the filmmaker. Some of these filmmakers have worked years on their projects huddled over editing bays thinking no one else will see their work. A compliment from a complete stranger is the greatest gift they will ever get.
Sundancing with The Tribune
Find maps, theater venues, shuttle stops and much more on The Tribune's new Sundance Film Festival Travel Guide on Pinterest at www.pinterest.com/sltrib (or scan the accompanying QR code).
For live coverage during the festival from movie critic Sean P. Means and other Tribune staffers, check out The Tribune's Sundance Film Festival blog at www.sltrib.com/Blogs/sundanceblog. The blog has been active for weeks leading up to the festival, which begins Jan. 16.
On Twitter, you may follow our Sundance-specific account at @sundancelive and @moviecricket, for coverage of the festival and films in general by Means, The Tribune's critic and a Sundance attendee for 20 years.
The Tribune's Jennifer Napier-Pierce talks to Sundance organizers, and to Tribune movie critic Sean P. Means, in a TribTalk on Monday at 12:15 p.m. at sltrib.com.