Doom-and-gloom expectations have long been staples of the independent film world, but factoring in today's troublesome economy and the general post-Sept. 11 weariness, it would be logical to assume that now might be a particularly bad time for the Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off Thursday night.
Thousands of film buyers, distribution honchos and other movie professionals as well as amateurs will descend upon the ski resort town of Park City, Utah, for 10 days before the Winter Olympics takes over the area 21/2 weeks later. The Robert Redford-founded Sundance festival, the premier showcase of American independent film, will be the first gathering of many of these film folks since September's Toronto International Film Festival was interrupted by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The post-Sept. 11/pre-Olympics security is expected to be especially tight, which could make this snow-laden, logistics-challenged festival even trickier than usual to navigate. Meanwhile, renovations to one of the festival's key theaters were not completed on time, thus bumping many screenings to hotel function rooms.
Yet despite the trouble signs, those in the independent film business are expressing a cautious optimism that Sundance 2002 might offer what at least some of them and the moviegoing public want.
"People are still going to the movies, right?" Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale said. "What's evident at the end of this particular year is that people have an appetite and curiosity to see as many varied movies as we can give to them."
Ironically, a major source of sunshine can be found in the darkest of last year's Sundance entries: When Todd Field's "In the Bedroom" debuted a year ago at the festival, more viewers seemed to admire than embrace it, and many speculated that this drama was too slow and emotionally searing to find much of an audience outside of the festival.
Whether you credit another masterful Miramax marketing job, the country's altered mood or just the film's strengths, "In the Bedroom," all 135 painful minutes of it, is a hit, its story of grief and vengeance touching a nerve among moviegoers. Sissy Spacek is considered a strong Best Actress Oscar contender, and the movie likely can expect other nominations plus a long theatrical life.
"The fact that a substantive, carefully paced, unflashy drama could attract this kind of business is good news," said Eamonn Bowles, president of the newly formed Magnolia Pictures.
So while the major studios try to decipher which of their mega-budget formulas remain reliable, the smaller companies can look to Sundance for unpredictable material that just might score on the basis of quality. Sundance Film Festival co-director Geoffrey Gilmore called this year's lineup an especially idiosyncratic one.
"In the last couple of years, we've been accused -- along with the independent world -- of having gone mainstream and that too much of the work that was being produced by the independent studios was looking similar to a major studio production," Gilmore said. "That's one of the things you can't say about this year's program. A lot of the work has not just a quirkiness but a downright eccentric quality to it.
"That probably means that it will be more criticized," he added. "It probably will not be as universally accepted because it's often those works that have more of a mainstream quality that are most accepted and embraced."
Hoping for the best
Festivalgoers, of course, will hope that last point isn't code for: Prepare for a weak year. But if the actual trend is that the strong films will come as surprises -- like the out-of-the-blue 2000 Sundance hit "You Can Count on Me" -- few will complain.
"It's really a grab-bag this year, a lot of stuff coming from the unknown," Bowles said.
Even the relatively high-profile projects don't fall in the cookie-cutter category. John Malkovich's directorial debut, "The Dancer Upstairs," stars Javier Bardem ("Before Night Falls") in a story about political intrigue in an unnamed Latin American country.
Jennifer Aniston plays a discount store clerk who has an affair with a young co-worker in "The Good Girl," written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta, the team that previously made the effectively squirm-inducing 2000 Sundance hit "Chuck and Buck."
Gilmore characterized "The Dancer Upstairs" and "The Good Girl" as "very weird and extremely interesting films." Neither one has a distributor yet.
Also sure to be a hot ticket among film buyers will be Gus Van Sant's new film, "Gerry," which is said to be a return to the experimentalism of "My Own Private Idaho" after his mainstream forays with "Finding Forrester" and "Good Will Hunting." It stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck as friends who trek into the wilderness.
Another apparent departure is Robin Williams' new movie, "One-Hour Photo," in which he plays a lonely photo processor who decides to make himself part of a suburban family whose pictures he has been developing.
Sundance Film Festival
Despite economy and weariness, movie world turns to Sundance
This festival is the first gathering for many since September's Toronto International Film Festival was interrupted by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
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