Companies that obviously send teams of agents, executives and publicists to film festivals are now mulling the unthinkable: They’re sending fewer people for less time, imposing shared housing or choosing between events.
“My usual hotel (Telluride) charges me $700 a night,” said a Hollywood literary agent. “It’s cheaper to go to Venice.” He’s waiting to see if he can share an apartment with other agents, the first. A publicist tells me that when she goes to Sundance 2024, she might have to give up her precious Eccles parking pass.
Of course, this is the very definition of a first-world problem, but it also points to a larger problem at play. Going to a festival has always been fun, but their design was practical. It was the best—and sometimes the only—way for people to discover talent, new business, and acquire major titles.
That analog monopoly has changed with Zoom meetings and screening hookups, but what’s really making people reconsider how they approach major events like Sundance, Cannes, Telluride, and SXSW are inflationary travel and lodging costs. post-pandemic price hikes and industry budget cuts.
It all conspires to create Hollywood’s ultimate existential dilemma: Are trips to festivals essential? As, Truly really essential? What was once taken for granted is now a question mark. As one executive at a major film festival told me, “It’s a brutal time.”
It’s perhaps most evident at the Telluride Film Festival. It has more than enough demand — its 3,000 season tickets sell out every year, by the time they go on sale — but the associated costs give some of the faithful pause.
Ski.com offers a direct charter flight between Los Angeles and Telluride’s closest airport in Montrose, Colorado, an hour’s drive away. That ticket cost less than $900; today it’s $1,950. United lets you fly commercial one-stop for $1,100, while American offers one-stop for around $400, but it’ll take you nearly 15 hours to get there.
Others save money by flying to Albuquerque, New Mexico; Grand Junction, Colorado; or Denver, and then rent a car for the 3-7 hour trip. However, the cheapest, no-frills Telluride hotel costs around $3,000 for five nights.
For one award-winning journalist, the price hike meant he decided to spend $1,000 less and book eight days in Venice instead of four in Telluride. “(Telluride) was $4,000-$5,000 anywhere I wanted to stay,” she said. She saved the cost of a $750 badge (unlike most festivals, Telluride charges press for access; they’ve kept the prices the same for years), and her flight was less than half of Ski.com’s charter .
Telluride festival executive director Julie Huntsinger said she has been trying to get Ski.com to drop the price to no avail. “’How can you do that?’ They just say, ‘Whatever it costs.’”
Sometimes it could mean a strategic shift: If Netflix starts booking condos across the street from Telluride’s Palm Theater in bulk, other companies need to start planning ahead.
An agent may have to share a luxury condo, but they’re prohibitively expensive for independent filmmakers seeking buyers, much less the average movie lover. “I don’t want only certain people to be able to go,” Huntsinger said. “I want everyone to go. They’re students, they’re fixed income people, Kansas, Missouri, all those folks from Oklahoma.
Tellurideans don’t necessarily share the same concern. Local homeowners used to rent out their homes through competitive housing companies, who negotiated meeting rooms with the festival. Now many landlords manage their own rentals, which meant the end of comps.
“People at Airbnb have left the lodging companies and raised their prices,” Huntsinger said. “There’s this whole crazy price hike. We’ve gone from about $400,000 to house our staff; increased by 20%. Inflation isn’t going up 20%, and neither is income. But Telluride has to stop next year.
It refers to the city, not the festival, of course. At last month’s Telluride cocktail party at the Pendry Hotel in Los Angeles, a publicist said that over the past four years, their cost to attend the festival has increased by $500 per person per year. Another Los Angeles news agency boss wonders if he can still break even when he campaigns for clients at Sundance and Telluride.
This inflationary spiral isn’t limited to Telluride. A study by travel site Hopper showed that average hotel costs have increased 54 percent beyond 2022. However, with an annual population of 2,585 and no nearby cities, Telluride operates from scarcity. Bigger cities have more venues and more competition, however far the hall may be from the nerve center of the festival.
Park City (population 8,576) has seen growing hotel development due to its popularity as a ski destination, but that ski competition keeps prices high during January’s Sundance Film Festival. In recent years, some attendees have decided to book much cheaper accommodations in Salt Lake City and spend their money on Ubers that take them to the movies 32 miles away.
“We’re in a time where everyone’s looking at efficiency, doing things smart, and being budget conscious,” Sundance spokeswoman Tammie Rosen said.
An increasingly popular Sundance option is to attend for a few days, then go home and catch up on more of the festival’s titles online. Some will avoid the in-person experience altogether. For 2024, the Sundance festival has announced that it will make a portion of its selections available online, but hasn’t yet revealed what those might be or when they’ll be accessible.
Every city faces a price hike around events or peak holiday periods, whether it’s Park City, Provincetown, or Cannes. That’s why Sundance steers clear of the Martin Luther King weekend, which brings extra competition around the holidays.
“The world is so expensive,” said the festival executive. “We are trying to be adaptive and resilient. Now everything is more competitive”.
A studio distributor sends enough people to cover ground clearance at major festivals, while other decision makers stay at home and follow up hookups or screenings to make the final buying call. “We’re generally more careful because of the state of what’s happening in the industry,” she said. This approach would have been unthinkable in the heyday of consecutive nightly auctions, but today the much slower metabolism for festival shopping often stretches over weeks or months.
To some extent, festival attendance was supported by Newton’s first law of motion: it takes a lot of discomfort to make people change long-standing habits. For some, the prices are enough.
A freelance writer who has been visiting Telluride since 2009 said he may not return after this year. “I pay out of my own pocket,” he said. “I’m not an inside guy. I pay almost $600 a night for lodging. The experience is not worth it. It was $3,000 when I started and it more than doubled. Inflation can only explain so much. (Telluride sellers) know that wealthy people are coming to town, making it an elite event. It’s heartbreaking. I was always going to go. I finished after this year.