Lights, Camera, Action: Utah’s Economy and the Sundance Film Festival

As festivals and sporting events go, few are tied to a city or a state as closely as the Sundance Film Festival is associated with Park City and Utah.


“People talk, almost in every breath, about our marketplace when they talk about the Sundance Film Festival,” says Mike Lawson, president of Commerce Real Estate Solutions. “I would challenge you to name three other events anywhere in the country that provide the same visibility that a single, two-week event like the Sundance Film Festival provides Utah.”

It’s been said that the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics introduced the world to Utah. Perhaps every January the Sundance Film Festival makes a reintroduction and an invitation: World, come to Utah. The full impact of that annual reintroduction is significant. Over the last five years, the Sundance Film Festival has brought Utah more than $375.6 million in economic activity, $21.9 million in tax revenue, supported more than 8,224 jobs and attracted more than 219,987 festival attendees, according to the Sundance Institute. Over the last decade, the festival has generated in excess of $500 million in economic activity for Utah. It is the state’s largest annual international event, bolstering tourism and attracting worldwide media attention.

Last year, the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research (BEBR) at the David Eccles School of Business said the 2013 Sundance Film Festival generated close to $70 million for the State of Utah in overall economic impact. It supported more than 1,407 jobs, generated more than $56.8 million in international media exposure, provided nearly $5.8 million in tax revenue and was attended by nearly 46,000 people.

Between the announcement of the film program in late November 2012 through wrap-up articles in February 2013, the Sundance Institute and the 2013 Sundance Film Festival generated more than 31,100 print and online articles, according to the Institute. And from Jan. 15 to Feb. 15, 2013, the festival generated 11,900 television pieces. In total, publicity value from the festival totaled more than $56.8 million with more than 900 registered press from 16 countries attending.

More than 65 percent of the 2013 festival attendees came from outside of Utah. The largest share of non-resident visitors came from California, New York and Illinois with another 4,000 attendees coming from 22 countries. Canadians accounted for the single largest share of international visitors, followed by Australia and the United Kingdom.

“At EDCUtah, we invite a group of national site selectors to be our guests for the opening weekend of Sundance. It’s the perfect opportunity for us to showcase Utah and why it’s a great place to live, work and play,” says Kim Frost, director of marketing and communications for EDCUtah. “Last weekend we had a group of five site selectors here to ski, attend films and learn more about what is happening in Utah. One of our guests said he has never accepted an invite like this from an economic development group, but he was so intrigued by the success we’re having in Utah that he had to come out to see for himself.”

EDCUtah has been leveraging the festival to introduce site selectors to Utah for more than seven years, Frost explains. As a direct result, site selectors have brought a number of projects to the state. “After their visits, the site selectors put Utah on their lists for projects that they previously may not have. It keeps Utah on their radar and helps them understand that Utah can compete on projects of all sizes and scope,” she says.

Many of the site selectors have never visited Utah, much like many festival attendees. Of the estimated 30,065 nonresident festival attendees in 2013, approximately 36 percent said this was their first visit to Utah, and 83 percent said they traveled to Utah specifically to attend the festival. Forty percent said they would visit Utah again during the next year, according to the BEBR.

Almost 40 percent of nonresident attendees said they intended to ski or snowboard in Utah during their stay, which equates to about 12,000 people. The most popular resorts for skiing were Park City and Deer Valley. Of those who said they would ski or snowboard, about half indicated they would spend at least one full day at the Park City Mountain Resort and 31 percent said they would spend at least one day at Deer Valley. The BEBR says a smaller share of locals indicated they would combine skiing with festival attendance. About 20 percent of those surveyed said they would either ski or snowboard in conjunction with film attendance. The Park City Mountain Resort and the Canyons were the ski areas mentioned most often by locals.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of outdoor recreation to the state. Not only is it essential to the economy but it introduces people to the amazing quality of life that Utah has to offer,” says Frost. “There are very few other places in the country where you can live and work in a metro center and be 30 minutes from 10 world class ski resorts.”

Will a recruitment deal get done because of Sundance’s visibility? We may never know, adds Frost. “But Sundance’s success here speaks volumes about Utah’s credibility and long-term stability, about the state’s business-friendly environment, its support for the arts and about the fantastic recreational opportunities that are here. That message is priceless,” she says.

In addition to its cultural value and economic impact, the Sundance Film Festival has become a powerful business recruitment tool for GOED and EDCUtah, who focus on CEOs and other top-level executives in fields such as technology, finance and sports that visit Utah specifically to attend the Festival. In past years, GOED, with Zions Bank, has hosted networking events that drew acclaimed and rising filmmakers and executives from companies from the likes of Oracle, Adobe, Expedia, HP, Hilton Hotels and Microsoft.

The festival is also a leading example of how the arts can support the local economy, help grow local businesses and highlight Utah as great place for other businesses to locate.