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For bleak Hollywood, Sundance is perfect escape

For a Hollywood mired in an industry-wrecking writers' strike, the Sundance Festival could not have come a day too soon.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2008 17:39 IST

For a Hollywood mired in an industry-wrecking writers' strike, the Sundance Festival could not have come a day too soon.

What better tonic for an infighting movie industry than to take off for a week or so to the world-class ski resort of Park City, Utah, for a never-ending merry-go-round of screenings, parties, deal making and mountains of free swag given away by companies eager for celebrity exposure?

It's a far cry from the kind of arts-centred festival that Robert Redford was hoping for when he launched the festival in 1978 and named it after his character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film from the most uniquely American genre - the Western.

Now about 50,000 people are expected to make the trek from Hollywood to the Utah wilderness, and films are being sold for tens of millions of dollars, featuring the top echelon of stars.

The first movie on the roster, In Bruges, features world-class heartthrob Colin Farrell in a dark comedy as a troubled hitman in Belgium. It is only one of the many movies that are attracting strong interest this year as studios look to independent movies to take the place of their strike-hit blockbusters.

The increased attention started building long before Thursday's opening.

More than 120 feature films are to be shown during the course of the festival, which opened Thursday, but a handful of movies are already receiving outsize portions of advance buzz, including Choke, starring Sam Rockwell and Anjelica Huston in a story about a sex-addicted conman; The Wackness, a Ben Kingsley/Mary-Kate Olsen comedy about a high school- age marijuana dealer trading drugs for therapy; and Sunshine Cleaning starring Emily Blunt as a crime-scene cleaner.

Then there's The Great Buck Howard, starring John Malkovich as a strange illusionist. Tom Hanks also makes an appearance.

Also generating buzz is Pretty Bird, starring festival favourite Paul Giamatti in a comedy about inventors who are building a rocket belt, and Hamlet II about a high school drama teacher writing a sequel to Hamlet to motivate his students and save his department.

According to the industry bible Variety, last year's festival produced sales of 53 million dollars for 20 titles. So far, only 14 have been released for box office grosses of $34 million.

But last year was special. With the country floundering in Iraq, the focus was on heavy political faire. This year, the focus has lightened up.

"As I watched the films, many of them about families, many of those families dysfunctional, I felt that they were not trying to solve the problems of the world, that it was a more personal group of films," said Geoffrey Gilmore, the longtime director of the festival.

That hasn't done all that much to pacify Sundance purists, like the folks at IndieWire, a publication dedicated to promoting low-budget indie movies.

They have taken to calling this year's event Brand-Dance and noted that of the 75 film-related gatherings that they had been invited to, most of them are taking place at a venue that has been set up by a name brand, such as the Heineken Green Room.

Organisers denounced the commercial invasion in a press release.

"Sundance Institute does not support these endeavours because they negatively impact the public's perception, contribute to an increase in operational costs in Park City and distract from the Festival's focus," it said.

"For better or for worse, independent cinema has become co-opted by Hollywood," Redford recently told the local Deseret News. "More big-name stars are appearing in independent films, which does gives them more legitimacy, but that definitely has its negative aspects as well."