Sundance is the top stop for the film prize patrol

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"In the Bedroom," a wrenching family drama, has emerged in recent weeks from the clutter of year-end movies to become a strong contender in Hollywood's annual race for the Academy Awards.

Its distributor, Miramax Films, has trumpeted the film in television, radio and newspaper advertisements as one of the year's must-see movie experiences, listing all the awards and nominations it has already received, including a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture drama. But "In the Bedroom" did not begin as a studio release. It was picked up at last year's Sundance Film Festival, the annual celebration of American independent movies founded two decades ago by actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute and held each winter in Park City, Utah.

As the 20th annual edition of Sundance hits full swing here this week, the search for Oscar-worthy films has become part of the landscape, reflecting a "home run" mentality, as one filmmaker puts it -- whether it's in pursuit of award-type films or big box-office payoffs -- that has swept over this festival in recent years. Some say it is at odds with the original intent of Sundance.

This year, about 200 features and documentaries will play at Sundance -- along with dozens of other films at the festival's unrelated satellites such as Slamdance and Slumdance -- with as many as 20,000 filmmakers, fans and journalists expected to attend.

Major festivals such as Cannes, Toronto and Berlin have become crucial to the marketing of movies, but it's Sundance that has the most direct ties to Hollywood because of its links to studios and American filmmakers.

The festival's growing importance to Hollywood also reflects the sea change in the film industry over the last quarter-century, as movies open on thousands of screens, living or dying on their first weekend in release, and blockbusters are made by dumbing down scripts so they will appeal to teenagers who flood the megaplexes each weekend.

In the past, Hollywood studios regularly turned out epic productions like "Ben-Hur" and "Lawrence of Arabia" that could be counted on to become best picture candidates at the Academy Awards. Today, the studios seem more consumed with creating and marketing blockbusters, whether it's the computer-enhanced wizardry of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and the upcoming "Spider-Man"; green-lighting risk-averse sequels like "Rush Hour 2" and "The Mummy Returns"; or relying on star-driven fare like "Ocean's Eleven."

As a result, the studios have come to rely on their art-house divisions to comb the festivals looking for thought-provoking, character-driven movies that can give a studio the prestige that comes with an award-winning film.

To that end, Sundance has proved to be fertile territory. Fine Line Features, the art-house side of New Line Cinema, discovered a small Australian film called "Shine" at Sundance and then rode the 1996 release to seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture. The critically acclaimed 1999 film "Boys Don't Cry" was acquired by Fox Searchlight after executives viewed only sample footage of the uncompleted film at Sundance. The movie's lead, Hilary Swank, went on to win the Academy Award for best actress.

Two years ago, Paramount Classics, the artsy label of Paramount Pictures, paid less than $2 million for a Sundance picture called "You Can Count on Me," which told the story of a wayward brother who comes back to live with his more strait-laced sister in a small town. Capitalizing on strong reviews, the film went on to take in nearly $10 million while receiving Oscar nominations last year for its female lead, Laura Linney, and director Kenneth Lonergan's original screenplay.

Last year, Sundance gave birth to four films that are now in the hunt for Oscar nominations. One is "In the Bedroom"; the second, "Memento," is a mystery-told-backward tale released by Newmarket Film Group. The other two movies were acquired at Sundance by Fox Searchlight, the tonier label of 20th Century Fox: "The Deep End," about a woman who spirals out of control while trying to keep her son from being found culpable in a murder investigation; and "Waking Life," a quirky animated film about a man in a dream state who encounters characters talking about their views on human existence.

The reason Sundance is so important for an Oscar-worthy movie, filmmakers say, is because it provides a great launching pad, with hundreds of journalists and critics in attendance who can give a film the kind of buzz money can't buy.

"You can't really have a better start," said "Deep End" director David Siegel. "It has an incredible amount of power that can influence someone's career--or life, for that matter. It's kind of terrifying. If you are looking to get something out there, there is no greater stage."

To purists, or at least those who remember what Sundance was like in earlier days, the emphasis on Oscar shopping, deal-making and big-name celebrities places enormous pressure on young filmmakers to make movies that are commercially viable. Among the many stars at this year's festival are Robin Williams, who has a thriller called "One Hour Photo," and Jennifer Aniston of "Friends" fame, who stars in a movie called "The Good Girl."

Director Penelope Spheeris, who has worked in both the studio and independent worlds with such films as "Wayne's World" and last year's documentary "We Sold Our Souls for Rock 'n' Roll," is not one to begrudge Sundance a few mega-deals or even a few celebrities on the red carpet. But she is dismayed at how the festival has changed during the years she has been coming here.

"What has happened," Spheeris says, "is the studios, mainstream filmmaking and star-laden pictures have inundated Sundance and changed it from its original intention. . . . Let the up-and-coming filmmakers have their chance at film festivals."

But Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's longtime program director, stresses that Sundance still shows movies that cost under $10,000 to produce and also some that cost more than $10 million, but he insists the festival remains a "discovery" festival at heart, where new talents get their works shown.

Money Also Motivates Distributors at Festival

It isn't only Oscars that distributors are after. It's also money. Occasionally, a film will debut at Sundance that will far exceed everyone's box-office expectations. That certainly happened with the documentary-style fright film "The Blair Witch Project," which was picked up at Sundance by Artisan Entertainment and went on to gross $140.5 million in 1999.

"It's always a risk," said Patrick Gunn, Artisan's executive vice president for overseas acquisitions. "The other side of that coin is it's frequently the unexpected films that end up doing very well. The biggest film to come out of last year's [Sundance] was 'Memento' [which took in $25.5 million], and it wasn't expected to be a big box-office hit."

Studios Come 'Looking for a Home Run'

Director Bart Freundlich, whose film "World Traveler" is at this year's festival, believes the studios are increasingly coming to Sundance "looking for a home run." Freundlich said he first noticed the trend in 1997, when Hollywood was buzzing over how a small British comedy about male strippers called "The Full Monty" took in $250 million in worldwide box office.

"When 'The Full Monty' came along," he said, "people realized that you could make $250 million off a movie that cost $3 million. Film distributors and financiers slowly realized that they could pick something up for a little money and there was a huge potential upside. They segued from being in the business of making films about interesting things and ideas which might be hard to get through a studio system into kind of home-run seekers."

Sundance founder Redford said Sunday that he doesn't blame Hollywood for its fixation on making blockbusters, rather than taking risks on smaller films.

"You can look at it real cynically and say, since Hollywood is a business, it's a great deal for them," he said. "They don't have to fund these scripts, they just dare exhibit them when they're safe, when they prove themselves at Sundance.

"Look at 'You Can Count on Me.' It wasn't even noticed. 'Blair Witch' was totally ignored. Suddenly, it shatters the industry. It revolutionizes a whole new way of thinking about digital films and things of that sort."

However, Redford does believe the studios are missing the point.

"Any business that has such grip on the entertainment industry, that shrinks itself out of greed, is losing out."

The film that really started it all, Sundance veterans say, was Steven Soderbergh's 1989 film, "sex, lies, and videotape," which was made for about $1 million and went on to gross $25 million.

"That was the one that sort of changed the world," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Classics, which last year had a huge Oscar contender and surprise blockbuster in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." The Ang Lee-directed martial arts movie picked up a huge critical buzz at various film festivals.

"They won the lottery with that movie," Bernard said of "sex, lies, and videotape." "Everyone else has been trying to win the lottery ever since.

Everyone read the headlines and said, 'Go to Sundance and you're rich!' It used to be you had to have a lot of passion to get your vision on the screen. Now, rather than who will be the next big director discovered, it's who has the most money."

The success of these films sparked a bidding frenzy at Sundance in the mid-1990s, which saw Castle Rock Entertainment shell out a reported $10 million to acquire distribution rights to a 1996 film called "The Spitfire Grill," which went on to gross only about $13 million. In ensuing years, huge sums were spent on little films like "Next Stop Wonderland" and "Happy, Texas" that failed to ignite the box office.

"I think after a few years where prices were clearly too high, things are back at a reasonable realm," said Mark Gill, who heads Miramax's Los Angeles office.

"You see movies bought for $1 million, $2 million or $4 million, but not $10 million. There could be a bidding war this year, but I don't think it will escalate to those levels of the past."

Now the bidding frenzy has subsided -- more often than not, studios have scouted out Sundance films and picked up the ones they want for distribution beforehand -- but not the desire by studios to make the big score.

Peter Baxter, who heads the smaller Slamdance Film Festival that got its start in Park City eight years ago among filmmakers who couldn't get into Sundance, believes Sundance has changed significantly from its early years.

"In the old days of independent filmmaking, people used to come here during the summer with their 16-millimeter films; obviously they fell way, way out of the studio system, and they would make a tour of the resorts, including Park City. A bus used to roll up in Park City and they would show 16-millimeter movies inside the bus. This is the seed, this is how Park City got started showing films.

"Now, [Sundance] is more of a market," Baxter said. "Of course, the festival still shows great films by new filmmakers, but from the overall perspective, this [market aspect] seems more important.'

This emphasis on swinging for the fences -- part of the winner-take-all mentality familiar in other aspects of American life, from sports to business -- can have a detrimental effect on young filmmakers with movies in competition. Sundance veterans say that if a movie is not picked up, the filmmakers often leave the festival fighting the impression that they somehow failed in their task.

For that reason, some young directors trekking here this year with their first feature-length films feel uneasy talking about the money that can be made at Sundance.

"Money is good, and I'm not going to turn down money," said Austin Chick, a 28-year-old filmmaker from New York, "but if it was about money, I'd be working on Wall Street by now."

Chick's film, "XX/XY" (the title refers to human chromosomes), tells the story of a menage a trois among college friends and what happens a decade later when they meet again. The film has received some buzz among would-be distributors, but he adds that making big, impersonal Hollywood movies at this point doesn't really interest him.

"I want to make movies that make sense to me," he said. "It's not about size or scope or budget. I would sooner make a smaller-budget movie, make my movie, than a big Hollywood movie where I wouldn't have a role, where I'd just be a cog."

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