Park City, Utah For years people have been saying that the Sundance Film Festival has reached its peak that the annual proving ground for independent cinema has been spoiled by hype and overexposure and suffers from the inflated expectations of fans, filmmakers and industry professionals who flock each year to the picturesque ski resort of Park City in the Wasatch mountain range of central Utah.
Judging by the Sundance showcase the week before last, however, any predictions on the festival's impending death are definitely premature. Crowds are still coming. Deals are still being made. The quality of films, notwithstanding the inevitable sour apples, remains strong.
Sundance is still thriving, in part because it defines independent cinema and offers the first glimpse of the year's outstanding films. Last year, "Memento," "The Deep End," "In the Bedroom" and "Sexy Beast" all premiered there.
Some filmmakers, such as Bart Freundlich ("The Myth of Fingerprints"), arrive with distribution deals intact. His new film, "World Traveler," an existential road movie about a young father (Billy Crudup) who abandons his wife and child to discover the root of his unhappiness, will be released by the new distributor ThinkFilm.
Others come to Sundance praying for a deal. East Bay filmmaker Finn Taylor ("Dream With the Fishes") was jubilant after returning from this year's festival. Fine Line paid $1 million to $2 million for domestic distribution rights to "Cherish," a comedy about a woman (Robin Tunney) under house arrest who falls for a security cop (Tim Blake Nelson).
"Pretty much all of the directors I spoke to said it was one of the best years in recent memory," Taylor said, "not only because of the quality of the films, but collectively we've gathered together, realized what a haven Sundance is from Hollywood, and fought to protect it."
No other festival generates the same kind of heat or brings together industry, filmmakers, fans and the press for such a lively if exhausting week. No other festival provides so many social links and networking opportunities.
"I come here and I feel like I'm in 'This Is Your Life,' " director John Waters said at this year's event. "I see everybody I've ever known."
Taylor spent the week hanging out with his filmmaker buddy Miguel Arteta ("Chuck & Buck") and was thrilled to see Sundance godfather Robert Redford and actors Patricia Arquette and John C. Reilly at screenings of his film.
In another sense, Sundance is still thriving because festival organizers have improved the infrastructure to meet the demand and the number of visitors.
It's no longer common to arrive at a screening and find a horde of angry filmgoers (some without tickets) pushing to get in; no longer common to wait up to any hour for a shuttle that never arrives.
Venues have grown, and the number of screenings has increased. Transportation is substantially better, and the teams of volunteers are more effective at directing traffic flow at screenings.
Getting into movies was definitely easier at Sundance this year. Crowds are smaller, partly because of the dot-com crash and a slower economy but also the legacy of Sept. 11. One senses less of the frenzy, the party-going, the see-and-be-seen lunacy of the past. "People are coming to see movies or to work for their movies," Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein told the New York Times. "It was like we were all on parade before, all under a microscope."
And yet, Sundance still thrives as a marketplace. Although it wasn't intended to function as such and still sees itself primarily as a film- lover's forum one would have to be awfully naive to deny its importance as a crossroads for commerce.
"Sleep deprivation is catching up with me," Taylor said the day he returned from Utah. "A lot of these deals are being made late into the night at parties.
We inked the deal with Fine Line at 2 in the morning with all our lawyers at a condo on Main Street.
"When you're at the parties and all the different distributors are there, it's kind of a really strange version of a high school dance. Everybody's checking out who's dancing with each other."
Although films aren't being picked up for the inflated prices that we saw in the mid-'90s when the homespun drama "The Spitfire Grill" was bought for $10 million and then failed to earn that much at the box office there's definitely a lively trade in distribution deals.
Along with Taylor's movie, these films walked away with distribution deals:
"Tadpole," a sophisticated New York comedy shot on digital video for well under $1 million, was bought by Miramax Films for $5 million.
John Malkovich's "The Dancer Upstairs," a film about a Latin American revolutionary movement loosely based on Peru's Shining Path, starring Javier Bardem ("Before Night Falls"), sold to Fox Searchlight for $3 million.
"Love Liza," a dour tale starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man grieving his wife's suicide and becoming a gasoline huffer went to Sony Pictures Classics for $4 million.
"Blue Car," Karen Moncrieff's exquisite drama of adolescent sexuality, sold for $1.5 million.
Arteta's "The Good Girl," starring Jennifer Aniston as a disgruntled discount-store employee, went to Fox Searchlight for $4 million.
Gus Van Sant's "Gerry," a moody road flick with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, sold to ThinkFilm for $1 million.
In other years, some of those films might have gone wanting for distribution. But after the Toronto International Film Festival last September, when business came to a halt after attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, distributors left without filling their usual quota of acquisitions. As a result, Sundance became doubly important this year.
Documentarymakers, although they never draw the same attention as their dramatic-film counterparts, also benefit from exposure at Sundance. Berkeley filmmaker Gail Dolgin, who won the grand jury prize with co-director Vicente Franco for their film "Daughter From Danang," didn't walk away with a distribution deal but says she's hopeful.
"We've got a producers' rep, Rudolph & Beers out of New York, and they're talking to different distributors who saw the film at Sundance," she said. "We talked to a few of them before the awards, and now that we've won, the cards on the table might have shifted."
"Daughter From Danang," the story of an Amerasian woman who returns to Vietnam to find her birth mother, had nine screenings during the festival, one in Salt Lake City for legislators and community leaders, another in Ogden for 700 high school students.
"It generates a lot of discussion," Dolgin says, "and seems to touch people but not always in the same way, which makes for really exciting and rewarding responses."
Dolgin and Franco's film will be broadcast on the "American Experience" series on PBS next year. "We're looking for theatrical distribution before the broadcast," she says. "We've got this year of opportunity and we believe we can build support for the broadcast. We have no illusions: We're a doc, but it's a doc with a lot of drama so there's a potential for a really great audience."
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle