Forget for a moment the indie darlings, A-listers and, if possible, Robert Redford. For the past three decades, the biggest celebrity—and certainly the most photographed—of the Sundance Film Festival has been the Egyptian Theatre.
“It’s our signature landmark and the heart of the festival,” says Trevor Groth, Sundance’s director of programming. “It has that great marquee and looks wonderful on those snowy days. It’s become the iconic image people have when they think of Sundance.”
Since the festival established its home base in Park City nearly 30 years ago, the Egyptian has served as the centerpiece of the 10-day gathering. Every year, Redford—Sundance’s founder and president—holds his opening press conference at the venue, which has helped launch the careers of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh and placed films like The Blair Witch Project and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites in cinematic history. “The first time you see a film at the festival, it’s ingrained in your memory, and for many people that’s at the Egyptian,” says Groth, a Utah native who has worked for Sundance since 1993. “So much of the magic at Sundance comes from the films, and the vessel in which they connect to the audience is through the theaters.”
Robert Redford, photo by Francie Aufdemorte
For 15 years, before the Eccles Center opened in 1998, the Egyptian served as the primary venue for films premiering at Sundance. Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh’s career-launching film, debuted at the theater in 1989 and broke ground for low-budget, independent films when Harvey Weinstein and Miramax picked it up. It went on to gross nearly $37 million internationally and marked the beginning of the independent film boom of the 1990s.
“Sex, Lies, and Videotape was the one that really made a huge mark,” says Egyptian manager Randy Barton, who has been with the theater throughout Sundance’s history. “It was a cult phenomenon and set the template for all these independent filmmakers that Sundance was [an acquisitions festival] and place to be discovered.”
In the years that followed, movies like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs—which Miramax rereleased in theaters last December to fete the film’s 20th anniversary—and Kevin Smith’s indie classic Clerks have elevated the Egyptian to film festival lore.
“Everyone who comes to the festival wants to go up to Main Street and see the Egyptian,” Groth says. “It’s part of the alchemy that helped Sundance grow into what it has become today.”
The attachment to the theater, Groth says, is powerful. Actors and directors have seen their careers soar as the credits begin to roll and the audience responds with standing ovations, forever cementing the King Tut–themed theater as the venue that launched their careers. When Smith—who has since been propelled to superstardom with hits like Chasing Amy, Dogma and Jersey Girl—returned to Sundance in 2011 to debut Red State, he requested it be screened at the Egyptian after the larger Eccles premiere. “He had such a soft spot in his heart for the theater,” says Groth.
As Sundance has grown from an intimate festival into an event drawing more than 50,000 people annually from across the globe, the 280-seat theater has transitioned into the venue for international films, documentaries, shorts and edgier, off-the-wall flicks often debuted at the midnight screenings. “The quirky, fun jewels of the festival that you might not see anywhere else are often screened here, and that’s great,” says Barton, recalling a film about Richard IV portrayed as a homosexual king with a hunchback, one eye and a lame foot. “I’ll never forget thinking how stunningly awful it was but how cool that it could be included in a film festival.”
What sets the Egyptian apart from the other venues, Barton says, is its central location on Main Street. The bars, restaurants and shops along Park City’s most famous street are flooded with visitors and locals wanting to take part in the festivities and retail spaces are transformed into venues for panel discussions with actors and directors or for premiere parties. And the Egyptian is in the thick of it all.
“This is the only venue where you can see a movie and within two minutes be sitting in a coffee shop talking about it and then come back for another film,” he notes. “Seeing a Sundance film in this theater is different than anywhere else because it’s intimate, original and historical. The energy is just amazing.”