Sundance Ends On Emotive Note

Fast becoming North America's Cannes, the annual festival attracts Hollywood's elite

HEART dominated this year's Sundance Film Festival. Recently tagged as the trendsetter that launched Quentin Tarantino's dark and empty vision, the country's premier independent film venue proved its versatility.

The movies that "buzzed" dealt with emotion. Top honors went to "Welcome to the Dollhouse," a poignant comedy about an ostracized 11-year-old girl enduring a painful adolescence through awkward, thick lenses. "Shine," an Australian film about the destructive and redeeming power of love, was so hot, it sparked a shouting match for the rights between two Hollywood distributors. "Care of the Spitfire Grill," an uplifting story about coping with deep pain in a quiet rural community, was bought for $10 million dollars: a record amount in the festival's 17-year history.

"I think the realism, the personal aspects of the stories are what fuels these scripts, as well as their inventiveness and artistry," says Geoffrey Gilmore, director of festival programming.

Sundance ended yesterday with a record attendance, an estimated 9,000 people, and a record snowfall in the Utah resort where it's held. A storm that started blowing about halfway through the festival kept up, almost non-stop, until its end.

While snowplows roared around Park City's unusually cramped roads (it is the peak of ski season), boot stores did a booming business. Even with shuttles running between the seven locations where the festival's 118 films were screened, the unrelenting cold and snow proved too much for some filmgoers.

"I buy another layer every time I pass a store," said one young Los Angeles producer, opening her coat and hitching up her skirt to reveal several pairs of socks, long underwear, and an odd collection of sweaters. "I really wasn't prepared for this."

Despite its history of blustery cold, Sundance has grown - from a small, out-of-the-way event for independent filmmakers to meet, exchange ideas, and compete - into the trendy place for America's entertainment elite to be seen and to tap new talent. It's become North America's Cannes.

Cognizant of the encroaching power of the Hollywood executives that now descend on Park City, with cell phone in hand, the festival's guiding inspiration, Robert Redford, announced he wanted more noncommercial films. And he got them.

"We didn't want this to become a place studios simply used to launch new pictures," Mr. Gilmore says. This year, only 18 films arrived with theatrical distribution in place, compared with 25 last year.

But for many writers and directors who earned a spot at the festival, a studio deal is exactly what they're looking for. For some, it's a question of survival.

"I'm broke now, I'm living on air," says Lee David Zlotoff, the writer and director of "Care of the Spitfire Grill" who spent the better part of two years working on the project. "I'm thrilled it was successful; it means I'm going to get out of hock."

Zlotoff is typical of many filmmakers at Sundance. He had a vision he knew would be difficult, if not impossible to sell to a Hollywood studio. He was determined to make a gutsy, emotional picture about community and the role that it can play in helping an individual heal and bring about redemption and renewal.

"The danger of going after big-game emotional stuff is that you can get sappy and banal if you go too far," Zlotoff says. "And if you don't go far enough, you're a coward."

With Hollywood putting a premium on high-concept, high-action thrillers, Zlotoff looked for funding elsewhere and found it. The risk he took is now paying off.

More and more filmmakers are taking off on their own. This year more than 700 independent films were submitted to Sundance, a 35 percent increase over last year. Only 18 were accepted in the dramatic competition and 16 in the documentary category.

In order to keep the spirit of the festival thriving, and the filmmakers from becoming too discouraged, two new categories were set up. "American Spectrum" featured 20 films festival organizer felt were worthy of being showcased, even though they didn't make it into competition.

The "Frontier" section was for films that embody a "cutting-edge, risk-taking attitude" toward filmmaking. They are designed to break new ground and challenge the audience visually as well as politically.

Director Nina Menkes's "The Bloody Child" is based on the true story of a young marine returned from the Gulf war who's found at dawn one morning digging his wife's grave. It focuses on the limbo zone between arrest and punishment. It's compelling, engrossing, and difficult to watch.

While Menkes is grateful for the "high profile" opportunity the Sundance screening gives her, she's also frustrated with the limited attention the "Frontier" films received and the overall state of independent filmmaking.

" 'Independent' has come to mean low budget," says Menkes, who's known for pushing cinematic limits. "People are not committed to a new vision of cinema. They simply want to make a cheap film and have Hollywood buy it.

Despite the push for commercial success by some, many filmmakers believe the festival has managed to maintain its independence."It still is the best place in the country to be," says a documentary filmmaker. "Your work still gets serious attention here."

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