It’s natural to have high expectations when you’re looking forward to a first-time experience. We spent weeks reveling in excitement as we prepared for Sundance. The collision of anticipation and reality was an experience unlike anything we could have expected. In some ways, reality exceeded our anticipation. But overall, well… You can say we learned a lot. Here’s your now-insider, first-timers’ guide to Sundance.

We drove. All night. The beautiful, foggy vista between Los Angeles and Park City was breathtaking—an experience in and of itself. Having a car came in handy for taking people to the airport, going to the grocery store to grab some healthy food, and picking up a last minute bathing suit for those oh-so-tempting hot tubs. If the ten hour drive is not for you, Salt Lake City airport is forty minutes away (and a shuttle is about $40 to Park City). Locally, Sundance provides free shuttle service on a loop to all of it’s theaters, headquarters and hot spots. These stations are manned by Sundance volunteers, who are a great source of information on the festival and surrounding area. And don’t be surprised by some impromptu entertainment and some laughs while waiting for your bus.

Also, check with your hotel. Ours had free shuttle service to any destination within a mile, and a direct phone line to call for pick up. Bring extra singles and be nice to the driver; he may agree to shuttle you off route to a far-away theater if you’re late for a screening. Taxis are also abundant on Main Street, and can get you home late at night or to other destinations for about $7 – $15.

If you’re a planner, you can probably book early (really early) and get suitable accommodations for a reasonable price. If everything’s already booked, fear not: there is hope. Ask around. Typically, every group of friends has a point person who handles accommodations. Expect to pay about $100/night whether you get a bed or sleeping bag on the floor. Be prepared for summer camp deja vu. Often, any place someone can sleep, someone will sleep—bunk beds, pull out couches, a little extra space on the floor. And expect to share one bathroom with four to five people.

Once there, if you find yourself out of luck, it appears a lot of people are willing to let you crash if they have the space. As a last resort, returning volunteers are awarded free lodging. Provide drinks, and you may find yourself with a couch to crash on. Most stuff happens on or off Main Street, so try to stay as close as possible to the action (or close to HQ so at least you’re on the shuttle route).

If you purchase in advance, there are online package options, but these sell out quickly. You can also pre-order individual tickets, but again, they sell out quickly. For the ticketless in Park City, there are a few options. On the day of the screening, unsold tickets can be purchased at HQ at 8am. Be in line by 7:15 or earlier. If getting up that early isn’t your bag, head to the theater your desired movie is playing at two hours before showtime to get a waitlist number.  Three hours early is the safe bet. Only 75 waitlist numbers are handed out, and they’re often gone in the first 10 minutes. You then return half hour before the screening to see if there are unclaimed tickets or seats. Your last option is to buy tickets off of someone. We recommend chatting up your neighbor on the shuttle. He may have an extra ticket he’s be willing to pass along. Also, people with extra tickets sometimes stand outside the theater and offer them at face value.

Parties are the place to be in Park City. With free booze, free scwhwag, and prime-time networking, getting in the door is not as simple as just showing up. But never fear, there are ways of gaining access without greasing palms or debasing yourself. First, check in with everyone you know before you go. One of your friends or colleagues may have an in to get you on a list, especially if they’ve been in the past. Once in Park City, stay up to date with the folks you know. Chances are, someone is going to a party where they can get you on the list. Lastly, hang out in a bar,  pay for some drinks and TALK TO EVERYONE. Everyone’s there to grow their networks or promote something, so be nice, be friendly and if people move, ask if you can tag along.

Layers. Layers. Layers. We hit some nice weather, but 15 degrees is still chilly. There are a rare handful dressed in practically nothing, but they’re few and far between—and never look like they’re having a good time. This is the one time you can be in Hollywood circles when no one cares what they look like. We’re not suggesting you look like a slob. For guys, some well-chosen knitwear (read: sweater) and hat are all you need. For gals, good hair and make-up are the most fuss you should make. Some decent jeans, a cute hat and some water-resistant furry boots go a long way. They’re not only practical, they’re the norm. Bonus points for rainbow Moon-Boots. They’re an instant conversation starter. Also, the reflection of the sun off the white snow can be intense, so don’t leave your shades in LaLaLand.

Now that we’ve covered logistics, let’s talk film.
We thought that going to Sundance meant we’d see a score of amazing films. But with a kaleidoscope of genres and categories to choose from, we were a bit surprised to find ourselves mostly indifferent. We saw lots of mumblecore: amateur actors focused on naturalistic dialogue (a.k.a. upper middle class white people talking about their problems, but never actually making any decisions). We saw documentaries that left us frightened and disappointed in our government, and some foreign narratives that were so weird that…well, there are no words to describe it.

In deciding what to see, you can ask around. There are plenty of folks touting “buzz-worthy” films, and you can spend a lot of time seeing what other people like. Ultimately, your taste is your own. Read the descriptions, make educated guesses, and take some risks. The film you thought you would love might fall flat, while another you barely gave a second glance might rock your world.

If all the buzz of Sundance has you wondering what all the hype is about, don’t ignore the red-headed stepchild next door (Amanda is a redhead, so she’s allowed to say that). Cross the threshold from main-stream studio “indies” to the underbelly that is independent film. When we walked into the tiny white room for our first Slamdance screening, there were bodies on the ground and the scent of dirty gym socks wafted toward us as we elbowed our way to two empty seats at the top of the portable risers. Weaving our way past people sitting between the aisles, we felt an anarchistic sense of abandonment. There was no one to take tickets, no seat numbering, no sense of order in general. We made it to our folding seats, and spent the remainder of the screening craning our necks for a glimpse of the screen. But once the lights went down and the film started, all of the environmental distractions drifted away. To our delight, what we saw was the most compelling, intriguing piece of independent film we’ve seen in years: The Dirties. We haven’t stopped thinking or talking about it since. We realize we may have lucked out (this film won the audience choice and grand jury awards). It had no name actors, and was written and directed by complete unknowns. We feel lucky to have been one of the few that had the opportunity to see this film, but are a bit afraid that no one else will (Editor’s note: We hope to have more news on this front, soon).

At the end of the day, while you may not like every film you see, see as many as you have time to. And if Sundance isn’t what you expected, Slamdance is right at the top of Main Street in the Treasure Mountain Inn, with movies that are pushing boundaries and making statements. Bottom line: Sundance is for networking; Slamdance is still just about film.