Sundance fatigue factor sets in

EntertainmentMoviesArts and CultureCelebritiesFilm FestivalsHeath LedgerSleep Dealer (movie)

PARK CITY, Utah -- Signs of fatigue were everywhere during the last days of the Sundance Film Festival: a man snoring loudly through a morning screening of the steroid documentary "Bigger, Faster, Stronger"; festival volunteers exchanging flu remedies; journalists plotting their escapes days ahead of schedule.

An uncharacteristically reflective mood had settled on this 10-day schmooze-a-thon after the amped-up opening weekend awash in swag and celebrities. A series of single-digit temperature days, the absence of a breakout film and the tragic news of Heath Ledger all seemed to affect the collective consciousness. Even Tuesday's Oscar nominations announcement, and the close of a string of acquisitions (including "Hamlet 2's" $10-million sale to Focus Features), felt underwhelming.

Ledger's death infiltrated festival chatter as clips of the actor's body being transported out of a New York City loft hit TV on Tuesday and reporters tracked down visiting celebrities at premieres and parties to get reaction. Still, for some festival-goers, all this only underscored what was already a lackluster Sundance. Fewer industry folks attended this year due to strike-related cutbacks. Those who made the trek to Park City fussed about the dearth of standout films with commercial promise and the weather. Some speculated the mood was the result of high expectations for some of the opening weekend's films that ultimately didn't pan out.

"It's been a definite downer," said Rena Ronson, co-head of William Morris Independent, the independent film packaging and financing division of the talent agency. "The mood definitely shifted. Everyone said it felt odd this year. There was a feeling of waiting for something that never delivered."

Washington, D.C.-based marketing consultant Lori Watzman said she hadn't discovered as many "standout" films as she had in the last five visits to Sundance. "I've been underwhelmed by what I'm seeing," she said.

Granted, there was still plenty of the usual punch-drunk merriment. Most screenings were packed and the all-night parties carried on into the second half of the festival. Woody Harrelson, for one, hit the town Wednesday night, sipping whiskey and tossing jalapeño slices in his mouth at a VIP dinner party. And that unique delirium that always blankets the festival -- regardless of film sales, swag houses or the films themselves -- was in full effect.

Indeed, the act of relaxation here somehow feels incongruous with the event's churning essence. At shuttle stops and outside screening rooms, it isn't unusual to hear festival-goers -- particularly the folks working the festival as buyers, reporters or publicists -- detail the number of meals skipped, the hours of sleep lost, the lack of feeling in their toes, like a game of the dozens.

This year, though, there was decidedly more grumbling. After a string of unusually moderate winters here, this one felt especially brutal, with so much snowfall during the festival that city officials put it in trucks and sent it out of town.

The writers strike, which many sellers hoped to drive prices up, appeared to have the opposite effect. By Friday, the most buzzed-about films going into the festival -- "What Just Happened?," "Phoebe in Wonderland" and "Sleep Dealer" -- remained unsold.

gina.piccalo@latimes.com

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