Where the art of the deal, art of film face off

"Three days of work, two days of snowboarding."

That's the plan of at least one pasty Irish visitor, the writer-director Martin McDonagh, who arrives alongside an estimated 52,000 other people this week for the 30th annual schuss of the Sundance Film Festival. The snow up in Park City, Utah, is very good this year, according to reports, and the well-known grunge playwright who makes his feature film directorial debut with "In Bruges," a black comic tale of hit men hiding out in Belgium, is pleased to hear it.

Best known for his play "The Pillowman" (staged here at Steppenwolf Theatre Company), McDonagh visited Sundance years ago as a civilian to hang out with his pal Amy Ryan, lately in "Gone Baby Gone." She acted in a film in competition that year. "We did some snowboarding," he says. "I wasn't very good, but by the end of the second day, I'd kind of gotten the hang of it."

Back then, McDonagh says, Sundance didn't seem as grimly commercial and deal-obsessed as it does to so many veteran observers today. "The spirit of independence was still there," he says. "Maybe it still is. I don't know. I hope it hasn't changed too much."

"In Bruges" nabbed Thursday's prestigious opening night Sundance festival slot. The Park City screening marks the start of the 10-day pileup of eyeballing and dealmaking and filmgoing all over the ski resort town, whose farflung venues are connected by shuttle buses. Just as the venerable Cannes Film Festival ("highfalutin and toffee-nosed" is McDonagh's capsule review of that joint) was re-immortalized recently in "Mr. Bean's Holiday," the Sundance festival's image found an eager pimp in the TV show "Entourage," which filmed its fictional B-level celebs in the factual A-level festival and made the whole thing seem like a snow-bunny-laden haven of recreational hey-hey.

During last year's Sundance run, staffers and volunteers all over Park City sported conspicuous buttons on their parkas. The buttons declared, or rather, scolded: "Focus on Film." It's not about the dealmaking or the swag. Ignore the famous people! Let the early morning bidding wars for last night's most talked-about screening proceed under the radar.

"Film Takes Place" is this year's rather inconclusive festival slogan. No one is kidding themselves: "Focus on Film" didn't make much of a dent in the image of Sundance as fur-lined bazaar, a place to see, buy, be seen and, with luck, avoiding being had. At least in a business sense.

High stakes

Sundance is like a big casino: The instant winners draw a crowd of admirers (potential distributors) bearing checkbooks, while everyone else blends into the faux-distressed mining-town woodwork. Sometimes it all works the way the winners believe it will. "Little Miss Sunshine," two years ago, sold for a then-record $10.2 million. It has since made $100 million worldwide. Those who saw it first at Sundance claim you could smell the money and the love right away.

Last year, the John Cusack vehicle "Grace Is Gone," an earnest, topical heartwarmer, screened to a wave of tears and sniffles and sold, quickly, to the Weinstein Co. for a tick more than $4 million. Then things didn't quite work out for it. To date, in conspicuously limited and already vanished domestic release, the film has grossed $36,613. It is unlikely to do everything it was "supposed" to do, such as secure an Oscar nomination for Cusack.

Here's the weird thing about "Grace Is Gone": It really did play that first time, at least with that industry crowd. "That film was a huge success at Sundance," says RJ Millard, a consultant with Focus Features, distributor of "In Bruges." Millard worked in the Sundance press office from 1996 to 2002. "The feeling was it would do very well." But then nobody wanted to see another Iraq-themed movie.

This year 3,000 features were submitted to Sundance, some with commercial distribution in place, most without. Roughly 125 have been picked up by this year's fest, which began life as the Utah/US Film Festival in 1978. Across the years, as the dot-com boom flooded the Sundance press zone with hundreds and hundreds of additional journalists and bloggers, careers have been made. One was Steven Soderbergh's, in 1989, with "sex, lies and videotape"; Soderbergh once worked as a volunteer van driver. In 1992 Quentin Tarantino came to Park City with "Reservoir Dogs."

No begging

McDonagh isn't exactly a filmmaking unknown: His short "Six Shooter" won an Oscar, and his writing skills have been honed in play after play. But the $15 million "In Bruges" may well launch its maker into a new realm of fabulosity. Whatever happens, he's being put up in a nice little house near Main Street, the street most of us couldn't possibly afford. And because he already has distribution for "In Bruges" he acknowledges he's "lucky enough to be in a position to not ask or beg for money." His brother is flying in from London to meet him. And by the weekend, with luck, they'll be snowboarding.

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A half-dozen fest entrants to anticipate, fingers crossed

A Sundance six-pack of maybes:

"In Bruges," directed by Martin McDonagh. Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as a couple of hit men hiding out in Belgium, as their boss (Ralph Fiennes) keeps them dangling. According to Sundance co-director Geoffrey Gilmore, it's "deliriously funny, pointed and perverse, yet sad, thoughtful and infused with a moral vision that resonantly reflects today's surreal world." "In Bruges" will open in Chicago Feb. 8.

"The Great Buck Howard," directed by Sean McGinly. In this frayed showbiz comedy, John Malkovich plays a Kreskin-like mentalist on the career skids; Colin Hanks portrays his personal assistant. McGinly wrote the script, and the supporting cast includes Colin's pop, Tom, Emily Blunt and Steve Zahn.

"Ballast," directed by Lance Hammer. One man's suicide in a Mississippi township creates a ripple effect in writer-director Hammer's picture, blending professional and non-professional actors in a tale of grief, recovery and community. The word is good on this one.

"The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber. Based on Michael Chabon's novel, this 1980s Pittsburgh story chronicles the final summer of Art Bechstein's youth. Jon Foster, Peter Sarsgaard, Sienna Miller and Nick Nolte co-star.

"Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains," directed by Gonzalo Arijon. Competing in the world cinema documentary competition, the true story of the 1972 Andes plane crash, addressed by several earlier pictures, is retold by the survivors.

"Diminished Capacity," directed by Terry Kinney. A hometown project. Sherwood Kiraly's screenplay (based on his book) tells of a Chicago newspaper editor (Matthew Broderick) whose uncle (Alan Alda) turns out to own a fantastically valuable baseball card. Virginia Madsen plays the editor's high school sweetheart, and you can expect to see a lot of the city by the lake.

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2007's score card: 2 hits, 2 misses

Last year's Sundance hits: The rest of the story

"Once," directed by John Carney. While other, lesser indies were getting snatched up for far too much money, this $160,000 micro-budget Irish gem didn't secure a buyer until quite late in last year's festival. It sold for around $1 million. It has since grossed $15 million worldwide.

"Waitress," directed by Adrienne Shelly. Murdered before the Sundance premiere, Shelly never got to see her fancifully stylized comedy starring Keri Russell take off with Sundance audiences -- as well as a broader commercial audience. Fox Searchlight picked up "Waitress" and the (not good, not profitable) psycho-kid thriller "Joshua" in a $9 million twofer. "Waitress" ended up grossing $22 million worldwide.

"Grace Is Gone," directed by James C. Strouse. Big Sundance hit last year. Many tears. The Weinstein Co. picks it up for $4 million, and then releases it commercially in North America to a resounding splat. The film has grossed slightly more than $36,000. Overseas territories to come, but Weinstein gambled on this one and appears to have lost.



Watch for daily reports from Sundance beginning Thursday at chicagotribune.com/talkingpictures.

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