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Indie elite head for Sundance

Nearly 40,000 expected to attend festival
/ Source: Reuters

Hollywood rolls up its red carpets and heads for the snowy sidewalks of Park City, Utah Thursday where filmmakers gather for the Sundance Film Festival and its mix of offbeat art-house films from around the world.

The festival, which is backed by actor Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute for movies, is the premiere event for U.S. independent cinema and a major market for buying and selling films dreamed up and produced outside the major studios.

Sundance organizers say nearly 40,000 people will journey to the ski town east of Salt Lake City to watch films ranging from “November” starring “Friends” star Courteney Cox Arquette to “Tarnation,” a film that was made for the rock-bottom price of $200 and is said to be “part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, part acid trip ....”

Hit movies here will be among the most buzzed-about films of the year. Sundance 2003’s jury prize winners for best dramatic film “American Splendor” and documentary “Capturing the Friedmans” have won rave reviews and are in the hunt for Oscars, the U.S. film industry’s top awards.

Like “Splendor,” many of this year’s 255 feature-length and short films continue a trend of blending fictional storytelling styles with non-fiction documentary techniques.

Festival director Geoff Gilmore told Reuters the personal introspection in many independent films of recent years seems to have shifted after the Sept. 11 attacks to stories about characters looking at how they fit into the world at large.

“The audience is not sure what the (characters’) search is really for, but all of those are outward searches and not inward  ... it’s about trying to find one’s place in the world and not one’s self,” Gilmore said.

Sundance 2004 features several films from African-American directors such as Vondie Curtis Hall’s “Redemption” based on the true story of a gang member’s self transformation. Mario Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!” recounts the making of his father’s landmark 1971 film, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.”

The market, the partiesFilm buyers said the lower prices for movies seen in recent years after a mid-1990’s boom will continue, but more films are being bought and spread around a number of distributors.

“Of the major acquisition festivals of 2003, including Cannes and Toronto, Sundance was by far the busiest,” said Tom Ortenberg, head of film releasing for Lions Gate Entertainment. ”It looks like it will have a great acquisition front again.”

Some movies getting talked up going into this year are “The Woodsman,” “Garden State,” “The Motorcycle Diaries,” “Maria Full of Grace” and “One Point O.”

But very often, the most buzzed-about movies fail to win over the sometimes fickle audiences at Sundance.

“It’s very difficult (to judge) until you get there,” said Bob Berney, head of Newmarket Films.

Of course, there are the famous parties populated by young filmmakers and celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, whose ”Butterfly Effect” premieres at Sundance.

Musical performers Nelly, Jason Mraz and Macy Gray are a few of the acts playing town. Major corporations like Intel  and Sony will display new digital technology and Coca-Cola  is launching diet Coke with lime.

Sundance, however, is about films, filmmakers and finding voices for ideas Hollywood’s studios won’t touch.

Director Shawn Ku’s short film “Pretty Dead Girl,” debuts at Sundance and tells of a morgue worker who overcomes necrophilia and learns to love a real woman. It’s a musical.

“In my defense ... my intention is to say that you can find the lovable side of anybody no matter how odd he may appear to be,” Ku said. “Nervous? In a word, yeah. I think so.”

The 2004 Sundance Film Festival ends on Jan. 25.