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Blurred lines: how an app ruined the Sundance waiting game

Blurred lines: how an app ruined the Sundance waiting game


Software is reshaping the personality of a major film festival

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Sundance ewaitlist
Sundance ewaitlist

Waiting, as the contemporary philosopher Tom Petty has observed, is the hardest part. And yet it was once the defining characteristic of a trip to Sundance Film Festival, where anything worth doing required arriving well in advance. That isn't true of the celebrities and the filmmakers, who wait for nothing. Nor is it always true of the press and employees of the film industry, who attend free screenings of their own.

But for most of the 40,000 people who descend on Park City each year, getting tickets used to be an agonizing challenge, one that required vast stretches of time standing around. It was part of the unique charm of the festival: at a time when Hollywood barely makes anything that isn't a sequel and fewer Americans go to theaters than ever before, hundreds of people in Park City will clamor to attend a grim documentary about domestic violence. Sundance is an alternate universe where you try three times to gain entry to a Glaswegian folk musical written by the frontman of Belle & Sebastian, without ever fully understanding why.

Sundance is an alternate universe

And to the extent that Sundance is a festival open to all, it was the waitlist that made it that way. Before this year, your number in line effectively served as a measure of how badly you wanted to get in: even if you didn’t have an advance ticket, you could show up to a coveted screening several hours in advance and secure a low waitlist number. To the festival's organizers, the old way of doing things created a problem: hundreds of people were loitering around theaters well before they should have been, interfering with lines for other screenings.

So the organizers created an app, new to the festival this year, and called it the "eWaitlist." "We’re always looking for ways of making the festival more experientially positive," John Cooper, the festival's director, told the Salt Lake Tribune.

Naturally, everyone hates it.

The hardest part

In the early days of the 30th Sundance, the eWaitlist is the talk of the town. The app lets you claim your spot in line via smartphone two hours before the scheduled screening — but for nearly every movie, the list fills up instantaneously — literally, within a couple of seconds. There is something about the whole affair that is not, as they say here in Utah, experientially positive. "E-waitlist at Sundance feels like a placebo sham," tweeted Foursquare CEO and festival attendee Dennis Crowley. "Sundance made the eWaitlist too frictionless!!" said Corey O., a visiting MBA student. "You used to have to earn your ticket in the cold."

Where filmgoers once traded notes on the festival's breakout films, they now pump each other for intel on the app. What's the lowest number you've gotten? How many seconds went by before you signed up? Were you on Wi-Fi or LTE? Some complain the numbers seem to be generated at random, regardless of how fast you tap. Others suspect that voodoo may be at work, or perhaps aliens. (The eWaitlist was developed by a suspicious-sounding Vancouver firm called Intergalactic Agency, Inc.)

The app works so well that it ruins something fundamental about the experience

Usually when we complain about technology, it's because something isn't working. eWaitlist is the rare piece of technology to have the opposite problem: it works so well that it ruins something fundamental about your experience. To understand why, you have to understand how Sundance really works.

God help us

I have plenty of time to think about the waitlist the third time I try to see God Help the Girl, the aforementioned folk musical written by Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch. The festival program describes the film as "a poignant coming-of-age story that doubles as an indie-pop musical," or precisely the kind of box-office poison that you would never have trouble getting into anywhere but Park City.

Press tickets are unavailable, so I try my luck with the eWaitlist. Logging in precisely two hours before showtime, I am granted No. 67 out of 200 supposedly available spots — just low enough on the list to get my hopes up. I trudge over to the Egyptian Theatre to begin my wait, and spend the next couple hours trading waitlist stories with the motley crew of film-school graduates and vacationing high schoolers who also planned to crash the gates.

To a person, everyone insists that they claimed their place in line at the precise International Atomic Time-certified instant that tickets became available. The idea that 200 people did this simultaneously and were sorted more or less accordingly by the millisecond that their tap registered on a server never occurs to us — or if it did, it feels too dangerous to say aloud.

The more desperately you want to see a movie, the more likely it is the person in front of you has no idea what it is

As time passes, the line fills up. Inevitably, every new arrival boasts a lower number than the misfits who showed up early. The elderly man who comes to stand directly in front of me illustrates a key principle of the new eWaitlist: the more desperately you want to see a movie, the more likely it is the person in front of you will say to his wife, "Now what is this one about, anyway?"

With moments to spare, Nos. 3, 4, 7, and 9 show up to claim their rightful places in line. They are tanned and wearing Aviators, as if appearing in a comedy sketch about Los Angeles. Naturally, they all get in. The last person to get in from the waitlist had a number in the 40s. Nearly half an hour after the movie starts, volunteers apologetically usher us away. It is the sort of minor small-town misfortune that Stuart Murdoch has spent the past couple decades writing songs about, one of which probably appears in God Help The Girl, which at this point we will just have to hope shows up on Netflix.

There's probably no great way to manage the waitlist at Sundance — there are too many people seeking too few seats. Three days into the festival, organizers said they had upgraded their servers after overwhelming demand crashed the system. But the real problem is that normal people can’t game the system at Sundance anymore — and gaming the system was half the fun.