Park City paper shifts coverage from government to celebrities during Sundance

Reporter Jay Hamburger’s beat is county government in the 7,500-population hamlet of Park City, Utah – but anything goes when the Sundance Film Festival kicks in.

“How could I forget my story, ‘Lady Gaga-dressed man arrested at Occupy protest on Main Street‘?” said Hamburger, who has reported for The Park Record for 14 years. “That’s a Sundance-only type story.”

Every third week in January since 1981, Sundance has premiered thousands of films in Park City. Some 50,000 pour into town over 10 days, dramatically shifting the coverage from local politics and property disputes to parties and stories on the latest movies.

Each year, the 132-year-old paper kicks into gear for the onslaught.

Nan Chalat-Noaker has been the Park Record’s editor for 16 years.

“We have this delicate balance,” said Nan Chalat-Noaker, editor since 1996. “On the one hand, there are all these celebrities in town. But we can’t forget our deeper mission to our residents. I consider the festival a thrill, but there are people in town who get irritated. If our newspaper only covered Sundance, we’d be in trouble. We can’t get stars in our eyes.”

One notable story advised residents and tourists alike where to park and what it might cost them. During the festival, Main Street turns into Mecca, and parking is outlawed.

And, of course, there’s the expected front-page story on the latest thoughts of Sundance Pooh-Bah, actor Robert Redford. This year, Redford explained — as he probably has hundreds of times before — that Sundance and Park City are two different places. Redford runs filmmaker labs at the Sundance Institute, 40 miles from Park City.

Six reporters, an editor, a copy editor and two part-time photographers put out the paper twice weekly but like all papers, it has an online presence 24/7. During Sundance, the staff works nearly around the clock because so much is going on. “We can’t afford to have anyone on our tiny, tiny staff sick,” said Chalat-Noaker. “So we give free flu shots.”

The paper publishes four issues during Sundance’s run, and prints an extra 1,200 copies throughout the winter season. Some are sold for 50 cents a copy, but the rest are distributed free to hotels and property management companies if they promise to give the broadsheet a noticeable perch.

“We also publish an annual ‘Film Festival guide,’ that is a glossy, saddle-stitched magazine formal publication with a press run of 12,000,” said Andy Bernhard, publisher for 24 years.

This year’s big front-page news story, “Sundance, Occupied,” was about a handful of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators who stormed a local bank. “There’s a lot of police-type activity we … see in this town during Sundance,” said Hamburger. “Brawls, crowd control, breaking up parties, celebrity misbehavior, people using hot tubs that don’t belong to them.” The town doesn’t usually see this activity other times of year.

With rappers Ice T, Common, Chuck D and Drake in town (Ice T was promoting his hip hop documentary, “Something for Nothing”), crowds quickly formed. “When the festival is at its biggest, it can be mayhem,” said Hamburger. “As a reporter, though, it’s more interesting than a typical day in Park City.”

Jay Hamburger usually covers county government for the Park Record.

Mostly, it’s fun for the staff. This year’s papers tried to balance front page stories on a high-profile development deal to build a movie studio with stories on documentaries about rape in the military, battling food giant Dole and a couple building a 90,000 square-foot home in Florida in the style of Versailles.

Chalat-Noaker saw “The Queen of Versailles,” and wrote about the documentary, which tells the story of a rags-to-riches couple, David Siegel, 76, and his wife, Jackie, 43, who have eight children and own the biggest privately held timeshare company in the world. Siegel’s resort empire includes a project in Park City.

“I wrote about it because of the connection to here,” said Chalat-Noaker. “But also because of the dichotomy between the uber rich and the tumble of the economy.”

As the economy crashes, the Siegels are forced to put their mansion on the market. Chalat-Noaker wrote about “Queen,” she said, because she feels if she sees a free screening and takes up the filmmaker’s time with interviews, “I’m obligated to write about it.”

Her staff doesn’t review movies, but they do tell the filmmaker’s stories on how the film was made and what it took to get into Sundance. The editor encourages her staff to see films as well, but there’s rarely enough time.

“During Sundance, I just have the feeling that I want to be in six places at once,” said Chalat-Noaker. “I get extraordinary access, but can’t take advantage of it because I have to be here to copy edit, design pages and put the paper out. But overall, I feel damn lucky.”

Just to make sure her staff got to see some films, the Wednesday morning meeting was canceled.

“I do encourage staffers look at the list of films and pick one or two that sparks their interest personally in hopes they will have a little fun,” said Chalat-Noaker. “I try to remind staff and remember myself that when all of these hot shots leave town, we still have to live with one another. So, no snapping at service workers who are just trying to do their jobs.”

Alicia Shepard was in Park City, Utah for the Sundance Film Festival to attend the premier of her son Cutter Hodierne’s film “Fishing Without Nets,” which won the Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking.

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