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PARK CITY, Utah — The stars have gone home. Or, that's what they tell me.

It's the sixth day of 2011's 11-day Sundance Film Festival, and the preening, posing, promoting magazine faces have returned to the Los Angeles smog to troll for their next scripts. Those of us remaining just want to see some movies.

But then I'm walking up quaint and sloping Main Street, colored lights strung above and a dusting of snow on the roofs, when I spy a man with salt-and-pepper hair being interviewed by a television crew. Onlookers start snapping photos. You know, just in case.

"Who is that?" someone asks.

I shrug.

"Is it someone famous?" someone else asks.

I shrug.

A woman tells me he is Denis Villeneuve, a French Canadian director whose film, "Incendies," was nominated for a foreign language Academy Award that very morning. So that's sort of a star. I guess. But then that's the second half of Sundance; you take your celebrity where you can get it. Or, better still, you don't get it at all.

The nation's most iconic film festival is well-known for its North Face-clad starlets, but after a few days those pretty folk go home and are replaced with a less-forbidding, less-chaotic and less-expensive Sundance. Hotels slash prices. Restaurant waits drop below two hours or disappear altogether. Movie tickets become easier to find.

For the second half of Sundance, Park City returns from LA East to charming mountain town of 7,500. Because those movie folk apparently aren't so good on the snow, it also is among the best times of year to ski here, making Sundance's second half an ideal winter escape.

Sundance's back half is so mellow that I arrived in Park City with no movie tickets but a simple plan: stand in line to buy last-minute seats to as many films as I could. And when I needed a break, I'd ski those empty slopes.

On my first day, a Tuesday, I began by heading to The Egyptian, the lone participating theater in downtown Park City (nine theaters in town participate in the festival). Moviegoers already were in line for "A Few Days of Respite," a story of two gay Iranian men who flee to France.

Like most Sundance movies, "A Few Days of Respite" was sold out, which left me to embark on a festival tradition: the wait list. Almost every showing of every movie has one, and it's among Sundance's highest-stakes games. Here's how it works: At least two hours before showtime (up to three for movies in high demand), line up at the theater. Two hours before the movie begins, festival workers pass out numbers based on your place in line.

You're free to leave, but you must be back 30 minutes before the screening to line up again by number (a minute late and you're out). Then you wait while the remaining tickets are sold for $15 apiece. Either you get one or word slowly trickles back that the show is sold out.

For "A Few Days of Respite," I got No. 16.

"Will that get me in?" I asked a Sundance worker.

"It should," he said. "Over the weekend, we were filling up pretty quick. People were bringing entourages of 30, which squeezed a lot of people out."

I took a place behind seven others in an underground gangway. We waited for 40 minutes before another Sundance worker announced she had 10 tickets that the film's director, who would join us in the screening, didn't need. We all got in — free.

"Best wait list ever!" she said. And unlikely to have happened a few days earlier.

Though I never was lucky enough to see another movie free, the wait list became a way of life. It worked (in the city library doubling as a private school, I saw "Martha Marcy May Marlene," an expert thriller about life inside a cult), it didn't work (No. 36 did me no good for a 9 a.m. showing of New York Times documentary "Page One") and a couple times I got lucky.

For "Being Elmo," a documentary about the man who voices the ubiquitous "Sesame Street" puppet Elmo, I arrived almost two hours early. But the movie was so in demand that I scored No. 62. Knowing such a high number was worthless, I instead did what I have for so many concerts and baseball games: I stood out front and mumbled, "Anyone got an extra ticket?" until someone did (and the spirit of camaraderie prevents scalping here).

After seeing three movies and striking out once, I was ready for snow. There are three resorts in town, and the most in-town of all is Park City Mountain Resort. It's so in-town that one of the lifts is in the heart of Park City.

I was primed to warm up on a simple run, but on the chairlift I met 10-year-old Jared from New York, who insisted I ski with him. He tried talking me into something called Widowmaker. We compromised at the slightly less harrowing Payday, the top of which looks upon miles of jagged, snowcapped Rocky Mountain peaks. Payday mostly mocked me as the clumsy flatlander I am, but so what? There wasn't a soul on the slopes beneath us.

Back up top, I met a retirement-age man named Jim, who, as a concierge of sorts, was directing skiers to appropriate runs. I mentioned how clear the slopes were.

"Who doesn't love Sundance week?" he said. "You ski by yourself! No lines, no waiting! All the Sundancers have all the rooms! They don't ski!"

I had planned to walk back to town by midday to wait for "I Saw the Devil," a bloody Korean revenge tale of a man who chases, catches, tortures and releases his wife's murderer (so he can chase, catch, torture and release him again). But I was having too much fun; I skied an extra two hours and gambled on buying a ticket outside the theater.

Muscles aching and lungs flush with mountain air, I lucked into that ticket just before showtime, bought a bottle of local beer in the lobby and eased into a cramped midrow seat in the back of the packed theater. About 30 minutes in, at the movie's first decapitation, a couple on the aisle several rows ahead grumbled about the gore and left. In true second-half-of-Sundance spirit, I gladly moved up and stretched out.

If you go

When and where

Sundance will be Jan. 19-29.

Park City is about 30 miles east of Salt Lake City, which is served by several major airlines. There are shuttles between the Salt Lake airport and Park City and buses in town — which are free — so a car is not a requirement, but it is helpful.

Lodging

Park City hotel rates dip significantly and availability increases after the first few days of the festival. Options are wide, from rooms as cheap as $135 or dorm room beds for $45 per night at Chateau Apres (800-357-3556, chateauapres.com) to entire two-bedroom condos for about $400 per night (listings at visitparkcity.org). Also a possibility is a single room in a condo (check craigslist.org) because industry folk vacate space rented for a week.

For more festival information: sundance.org.

jbnoel@tribune.com

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