The romance of the Sundance Film Festival is simple: It's the place where long-harbored dreams are first exposed to public view and, if favorably received, are launched into the world.

Gordy Hoffman had been driving a cab in Chicago for 3 1/2 years when the sight of a homeless woman hovering around a gas station pump sparked the idea for "Love Liza," a movie about a Web designer whose wife has just committed suicide and who deals with his sorrow by sniffing gasoline.

"You have a lot of ideas when you're driving around, and obviously I was in gas stations all week long all the time for 3 1/2 years," Hoffman said. "I wrote it a couple of months after I stopped driving a cab, and a couple of months later I left Chicago."

A chain reaction

Hoffman showed the script to his younger brother, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, in turn, showed it to his old roommate in Los Angeles, Todd Louiso, who played the quiet, nerdy record-store clerk in "High Fidelity." Four years later "Love Liza," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and directed by Louiso, was playing at Sundance and being viewed by potential distributors.

Like last year's Sundance film "In the Bedroom" -- as well as the soon-to-be-released-in-Chicago "Monster's Ball" and "The Son's Room" -- "Love Liza" deals with grief and catharsis, though in its own way. The mood is bleak yet the visuals sunny, and both the film and actor Hoffman, carrying a movie for the first time, have gained many admirers here.

Louiso's hands were shaking as he introduced his film's first screening Sunday, but by the time he and the two Hoffmans sat down for lunch Monday, they seemed not at all preoccupied with the potential negotiations between distributors and the movie's producers. To Louiso, the film's eventual audience wasn't a concern.

"It doesn't really cross my mind," Louiso said in his whispery voice. "I guess it's up to the company that purchases it, hopefully. I'm just happy that people saw it here, and if that was the end of it, that was the end of it."

That comment provoked laughs from the opposite side of the table.

"Of course we all hope it gets bought and distributed," Philip Seymour Hoffman said. "What we're saying is you put so much work into making a film, and just the fact that it finishes -- and then on top of it that you kind of like it -- you don't understand how satisfied you are just with that. So whatever happened after that is kind of gravy in a way."

The gravy was served. Sony Pictures Classics bought "Love Liza" later that day.

Catching the buying bug

Other distributors also have caught the Sundance buying bug. Miramax has acquired two films: Gary Winick's highly entertaining, festival-favorite "Tadpole," a comedy about a precocious prep student (newcomer Aaron Stanford) who's got a crush on his stepmother (Sigourney Weaver), and Karen Moncrieff's "Blue Car," a serious drama about an emotionally scarred teenage girl (Agnes Bruckner).

Fox Searchlight picked up Miguel Arteta's comic drama "The Good Girl," starring Jennifer Aniston as a discount store clerk who strays from her marriage with a much younger man (the older woman-younger man dynamic is a Sundance theme this year), and Lions Gate bought Lucky McKee's "May," a campy thriller.

Several other films also were said to be close to deals, including Gus Van Sant's existential, audience-dividing experimental film "Gerry" -- in which Matt Damon and Casey Affleck wander through the wilderness in long, beautifully shot takes -- and John Malkovich's directorial debut "The Dancer Upstairs," a smart but hard-to-follow Latin American political thriller that mixes some truly striking moments with some uneven stretches.

For an allegedly low-key Sundance -- one defined by smaller crowds and more fiscally conservative movie companies -- there surely has been a lot of activity.

"I think it's been kind of astoundingly vital," said Mark Urman, former Lions Gate executive and current distribution chief for the new ThinkFilm. "I can't believe how many films have sold and how much they've sold for. It's really vintage adrenaline-drive Sundance."

"I think the films this year on a whole are better than any festival in recent memory," said Paramount Classics co-president Ruth Vitale, whose company has yet to make a purchase. "There are just more movies that are interesting, well done, provocative, evocative and also commercial, which is a good thing, not a bad thing."

Her one regret: "The bidding is much higher than it ought to be, and so what has happened is that the smaller companies, the more conservative companies, have only helped bid up the price of the movie to Fox Searchlight and Miramax."

Another Sundance film with Chicago roots is Davidson Cole's "Design," though you wouldn't know without paying close attention. Cole and his crew (including "Stolen Summer" cinematographer Pete Biagi) shot this stylized, low-budget movie on the North Side and in Beverly and Des Plaines, and there's not a pretty skyline in sight.

Fans of Dinkel's bakery on North Lincoln Avenue should recognize the box in which a pastry is delivered.

"Design" is an ambitious, intriguing multicharacter film somewhat along the lines of "Magnolia," though far less polished, with the writer-director playing a cosmically doomed factory worker and North Shore resident Daniel J. Travanti a standout as an alcoholic father living in a trailer park.

At the post-screening Q&A someone asked Travanti why he had taken this role. "Because I'm intelligent and have good taste," he responded matter-of-factly.

Cole, who at times on screen resembles Nicolas Cage's only somewhat less unhinged younger brother, said he finally could relax a bit after the debut in Park City on Monday evening.

"It feels really good now to have the audience's response," he said. "Once you get that first screening out of the way, it gets a lot easier."