* Sundance Film Festival reaches halfway point
* Market for buying selling movies is strong
* Many films earned praise from audiences
By Bob Tourtellotte
PARK CITY, Utah, Jan 25 (Reuters Life!) - The Sundance Film Festival reached its halfway mark on Tuesday with the outlook brightening for independent moviemakers, numerous business deals closing and audiences buzzing about this year's movies.
The change in 2011 is striking compared to recent years when investor money pulled out of the market and companies shuttered amid the global recession. But this year, new players and an optimistic mood have led to a string of deals on titles including "My Idiot Brother," "Like Crazy" and "Margin Call."
More important for the thousands attending Sundance in Park City, Utah, east of Salt Lake City, is that many films such as "Circumstance," "Higher Ground," "Cedar Rapids" and documentary "Miss Representation" are stirring conversation, causing audiences to think and even laugh -- a lot.
"I've heard less about parties this year, and more about movies," said Miguel Arteta, director of comedy "Cedar Rapids," which hits U.S. theaters on Feb. 11.
Arteta knows well how to gauge the festival's mood. Sundance gave him his start back in 1997 with "Star Maps." His later films like "Chuck & Buck" and "The Good Girl" have played here and done well with critics or at box offices.
Sundance, which is backed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute for filmmaking, is the top event for U.S. independent movies. Directors, writers, actors, producers and others come here to watch some 120 feature films from around the world that screen during the 10-day festival that began on Jan. 20.
Over the years, Sundance and the market that takes place on its sidelines have grown spectacularly. But with success came a financial bubble that burst starting around early 2008.
Box office and critical success of 1990s films like Edward Burns' "The Brothers McMullen" fueled a speculative market well into the 2000s. Investors were chasing the next big, low-budget hit such as 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine." Made for around $8 million, it took in more than $100 million at theaters worldwide.
But looking for a "McMullen" or "Sunshine" led to a glut of indie movies. Many failed to make money and investors left.
This year, the market has rebounded. "Fewer movies being made in recent years has opened up slots in distributors' schedules," said Glen Basner, chief of producer and distributor FilmNation Entertainment.
Some of this year's higher-profile deals include The Weinstein Co's acquisition of Paul Rudd comedy "My Idiot Brother," which showbiz website Deadline Hollywood reported was picked up for a minimum guarantee of $6 million to $7 million.
Paramount Pictures put its arms around romance "Like Crazy" for a sum said to be around $4 million. Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate partnered on financial film "Margin Call."
Fox Searchlight pocketed coming-of-age story "Homework" and drama "Martha Marcy May Marlene," as well as the ability to make an English-language version of "The Bengali Detective."
But as important as the economics are, the movies have to be good, and at Sundance 2011, that has been the case, Basner and several others said. The run of success started with opening night documentary "Sing Your Song," Irish drama "The Guard," and lesbian coming out story, "Pariah."
"Circumstance," about two Iranian teenagers in a dangerous love affair, has wowed some audiences, as has actress Vera Farmiga's directing debut "Higher Ground," about the religious journey of a woman.
Documentary "Miss Representation," which looks at the way women are presented in the media, similarly has caused people to pause, reflect and talk about its subject.
Sundance 2011 wraps on Jan. 30, following a ceremony where awards are given out one night before. (Reporting by Bob Tourtellotte, editing by Christine Kearney)