It’s nervous-making time at Sundance

Veteran Los Angeles film producer Leslie Urdang stands among the most fortunate independent filmmakers. One of 1,026 submissions, Urdang’s low-budget “Adam,” an uplifting love story featuring a man with Asperger’s syndrome, was announced Wednesday as part of the lineup of titles competing in January’s Sundance Film Festival, which programmers say could be more upbeat and accessible than recent gatherings.

Having survived such overwhelming odds just to make it into the nation’s preeminent showcase and market for movies made outside the studio system, “Adam,” which stars Hugh Dancy (“King Arthur”) and Rose Byrne (“28 Weeks Later”), now faces an equally daunting challenge: landing a distributor. Well before the U.S. economy nose-dived, the market for highbrow movies was cratering.

“The marketplace is extremely challenging,” Urdang says. “Everyone hopes for a big sale, but there’s an awareness that it’s far less common than it used to be. We’re looking at a range of ways of getting our films released.”

Specialized movies have suffered through a terrible year at the box office, and the toll was especially hard on movies that premiered in last January’s Sundance festival.

Several high-profile Sundance titles still have yet to come out (including “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” and “Sunshine Cleaning”), while the handful that did reach theaters mostly vanished swiftly: “American Teen” (domestic gross: $943,000), “Baghead” ($140,000) and “What Just Happened” ($1.1million) were among the biggest Sundance-launched washouts. One of this year’s best theatrical Sundance performers -- the wine-tasting drama “Bottle Shock,” with ticket sales of more than $4 million -- had to be distributed by its own makers.

While the festival reports that there’s been no drop-off in sponsors, press registration and ticket sales, several Sundance veterans say they are reevaluating their festival plans.

“I think everyone is scaling back,” says James Schamus, whose Focus Features has the only film in dramatic competition that already has theatrical distribution, the Spanish-language “Sin Nombre.” Even with that film, Schamus says, Focus will be sending fewer staffers to Park City than it did last year.

Film publicist Jeff Hill, a fixture in Park City, Utah, for the last 16 years, decided last week to skip the 2009 edition of the festival. “The cost to go and operate there outweighs the return,” Hill says in an e-mail.

“I am very nervous about what’s going on,” says lawyer John Sloss, the leading sales agent at the festival over the last several years. As for taking less staff to and representing fewer films in Sundance this year (in January, his firm represented 19 movies looking for distribution), Sloss says, “It’s entirely possible.”

Organizers of Sundance, which has always been a leading advocate of gay and lesbian cinema, said they did not expect the Mormon Church’s backing of Proposition 8 to hurt the festival, as some people had targeted Utah for boycotts, home to both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Sundance fest. But one of the festival’s key venues, the small multiplex Holiday Village Cinemas, is part of the Cinemark chain, whose chief executive, Alan Stock, gave nearly $10,000 in support of the California ban on same-sex marriage.

Rather than force filmmakers to host question-and-answer sessions in a Cinemark theater, programming director John Cooper said that no film will play solely at the Holiday Village (the festival is adding a new theater at a recently completed synagogue just outside of downtown Park City).

Festival programmers have never tried to create a Sundance lineup that is intentionally commercial. In fact, the festival, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, was started by Robert Redford largely to bring attention to smaller movies that might otherwise escape the spotlight.

But the festival has nevertheless yielded a series of breakout art films, including “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Napoleon Dynamite,” “The Blair Witch Project” and “sex, lies, and videotape.”

Cooper says the slate of 16 dramatic competition films in the festival’s 2009 lineup is not as esoteric and challenging as in recent years, when Sundance subject matter included drug addiction, mental illness and sexual degradation -- and those were the comedies.

Rather than craft depressing movies about such gloomy times, Cooper says, Sundance’s writers and directors are turning toward more uplifting narratives.

“They looked at the world and said, ‘We can’t make dark movies. We need something hopeful.’ There’s a lot of romance -- people dealing with love and life and relationships. What they are really concentrating on is a better sense of story -- and ones that have real emotional impact,” Cooper says.

Buyers for independently financed movies say they are targeting several dramatic competition films for possible acquisition. The list includes “Big Fan,” from the writer of “The Wrestler”; “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men,” an adaptation of David Foster Wallace’s stories by actor-turned-director John Krasinski; “Arlen Faber,” a story about a reclusive author starring Jeff Daniels; “The Greatest,” a drama starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon; and “Paper Heart,” a quasi-documentary with “Juno’s” Michael Cera.

Cooper says the festival’s 16 competition documentaries, selected from 879 submissions, continue the nonfiction filmmaking trend toward advocacy and away from impartial journalistic observation. “They are basically telling you what to do, versus ‘This is something that is going on,’ ” Cooper says.

Documentary competition titles include “The Cove,” about cruelty to ocean mammals; “Dirt the Movie,” a documentary about, yes, topsoil; “Boy Interrupted,” a mother’s account of her son’s tragic battle with mental illness; and “When You’re Strange,” a look at the rock band the Doors from Sundance feature veteran Tom DiCillo.

Cooper and his staff added an additional 16 international documentaries (from 744 submissions) and 16 international dramatic films (from 1,012 submissions) to the festival slate.

In part, it’s that volume of movies being made -- rather than the number getting into Sundance -- that has sales agents, distributors and producers so nervous. On any given weekend, as many as a dozen new independent movies can arrive in theaters. That makes it nearly impossible (and very expensive) for these smaller movies to get a toehold, and the economic crisis has been accompanied by a 4% decrease in movie admissions, most of which are sold for big-budget blockbusters anyway.

“Event films are recession proof, but specialized movies are discretionary,” says lawyer and Sundance sales agent Steven Beer, explaining why movies such as “The Dark Knight” can sell millions of tickets while many Sundance movies go unseen. “It’s a new day, a new era. The majority of people who like specialized films will see them at festivals, on DVDs, or online through streaming or downloads, but not in the conventional theatrical marketplace.”

IFC Films is now distributing more movies through its video-on-demand services than in theaters. “I don’t think the audience is going away at all,” says Arianna Bocco, IFC’s vice president of production and acquisitions. “I think they are changing how they see movies. The audience is still there, and they are still hungry. You just have to reach them in different ways.”

If filmmakers come to Sundance assuming they will get a theatrical deal, they are likely to come home disappointed, says sales agent Andrew Herwitz, who sold the solid art-house hit “Waitress” to Fox Searchlight at Sundance in 2007. He fears the festival’s more difficult movies may struggle to ever make it to the multiplex. “In this market,” Herwitz says, “those films will not get distribution.”

“Adam” producer Urdang knows the hurdles her film faces. “The costs of everything, from production to marketing, have expanded beyond what can be supported,” Urdang says. But she believes her film’s central story holds appeal not only to people touched by autism in its different forms but also to anyone struggling to form personal bonds. “It really illuminates the obstacles that all of us face in intimacy.”

Horn is a Times staff writer.