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.

The festival will include many films shot in New York City as well. New York-based publicist Jeremy Walker said the quality of this group is particularly high this year, perhaps because viewers are seeing them from a different perspective.

"The movies were made before Sept. 11, and they all reflect a sense of community here," Walker said, citing such films he's representing as "Love in the Time of Money," "On-Line" and "Manito."

"It's something we've always known about ourselves, but somehow after Sept. 11 when you see these movies, it means a lot more. There's something about people being drawn together that has a lot of resonance."

The impact of the country's shaky economy is evident in the downturn of festival ticket package sales as well as the number of film submissions.

Gilmore said 750 dramatic features were submitted for consideration this year, compared with 850 last year, though the number of documentaries rose.

"You don't have that excess capital flowing out of Wall Street," Gilmore said.

Where goeth the dot-coms?

The dot-com companies, which were throwing lavish festival parties two years ago, have disappeared, and Bowles said he expects distributors to continue the recent trend of being more conservative in what they pay to acquire films.

"I don't anticipate people getting into absurd bidding wars," he said. At the same time, even though low-budget films continue to struggle to stand out from the crowd, companies big and small still plan to buy and release them. Bowles' former company, The Shooting Gallery, bit the dust last year, but he's back with Magnolia.

The ever-growing Lions Gate shed much of its original staff, which promptly formed ThinkFilm. Former October Films co-president Bingham Ray now is running United Artists as an indie-minded company, and producers Ed Pressman and John Schmidt have launched ContentFilm.

So much for the theory that the studio-connected indies such as Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics are putting the little guys out of business.

"Yes, the economy is not in the most sound shape, but that is the economy of the billions, and we don't inhabit that world," said Mark Urman, ThinkFilm's head of distribution. "I'm only concerned with individual ticket-buyers who have to spend $10, and a lot of people go to the movies."

So once again film biz types from New York, Los Angeles and cities in-between will leave behind their urban environments to visit one of the country's most scenic areas, where they'll file into dark rooms often to witness America's ugly underbelly exposed on screen.

"I don't think we're going to feel like a film that's upsetting is out of sync with what's going on in the country," Urman said. "We want to see movies that disturb us. Otherwise, why is it Sundance?"