(Planet) Hollywood or bust: For Robert Redford read Elliot Grove, for Sundance read Raindance. Whoever, whatever, selling films is a hustle. Sheila Johnston watches the hard sell

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ANYONE in the film business arriving at Planet Hollywood must be in no doubt that they are entering the remote colonial outpost of a mighty empire. The trophies on the walls - the straitjacket from Exorcist 3, Arnold Schwarzenegger's furry codpiece from Conan the Barbarian - seem like trinkets tossed to the ravenous, glamour-starved masses by passing nabobs from the West Coast. It is supposed to be an exclusive club for visiting celebrities, but you are more likely to find yourself fighting your way to the private screening room through a thicket of small boys in baseball caps downing burgers and lurid, non-alcoholic cocktails called Home Alone or ET.

That's the way it was this Sunday at least, on the inaugural weekend of the inaugural year of Raindance. Raindance is the brainchild of an American hustler (I use the word benignly) living in London called Elliot Grove. Grove is an enthusiastic character in a retro-Sixties sort of way: he calls women 'chicks' and most other things 'hip'. My previous contact with him had been confined to business faxes, which he would mysteriously sign with a heart pierced by an arrow, but he enjoys some small notoriety with colleagues at the Independent on Sunday after taking an informal meeting there armed with shades, briefcase and an attorney.

In reality, Grove doesn't have much cash. But he is the product of the can-do, up-and-at-'em Eighties. He had watched and learnt from a whole new generation of 'no-budget' US independents who spun films like El Mariachi or Slacker from a shoestring. In the States they inspired the inevitable rash of self- help manuals: How to Make a Film for the Price of a Used Car] How to Make a Film For a Nickel] Grove saw all this and started organising his own seminars and weekends. He 'kicked ass a bit' to help friends make their movies. Then he got to thinking bigger. He reckoned the last thing Britain needed was another film festival. The first thing it needed was an event devoted to the gentle art of the pitch. It would be held in London because 'the word on the street is that London is the hip place to be'. The model was Sundance, now an established launch-pad in America for the bright young movers and shakers. All that Raindance lacks is mountains, money and Robert Redford. But the schmooze is in full cry.

Here is Koina Freeman, braids to her waist, Black Panther badge and baseball cap prominently displayed. Her film, Little Black Panther, is a 20-minute short which she wants to turn into a feature. Her line: 'I just happen to be 26 years old] I happen to be the daughter of the leader of the First Black Panther party] My film is so good I don't wanna do the hard sell,' she says, hard-selling-ly.

'You know when you meet LA people]' grins Floyd Webb, a Chicagoan whom Eliot has fingered as 'probably the hippest film-maker in America'. He is here to sell a sci- fi film with an Afro-American spin, which he describes as 'like George Lucas's THX-1138, except with a sense of humour and a whole lotta funk'. Webb's pitch is peppered with references to CD-Rom, digital technologies (his project delivers the double-whammy of being both right-on and state-of-the-art); while, at 40, he is getting on a bit for probably the hippest new film- maker in America, he says 'I'm thinking of telling people I'm 56, so's I can get that elderly angle.'

Chaim Bianco, who flew in cheap with Virgin and is crashing at the apartment of one of Elliot's friends, is hoping for that Jewish angle no matter that, despite his first name, he's not himself Jewish. 'You're in the Tribe? That'll help . . . ' someone said to me. I told him, 'No, but I'll convert]' '

Their pushiness is nave but oddly engaging. And not everyone has mastered it. Check, for example, the flyers plastered over the walls. The Americans promise things like 'Computerised pornography, all- nite gunshops and vaudeville schtick' (The Pope of Utah). All I Know Is . . . styles itself a 'psychocomedy' (which means its hero, Shermy, is a schizophrenic laugh riot) and 'screams out for blurbed T-shirts, bumper stickers, dolls, mugs'. Another film (why waste words?) is simply called Sex Is.

The British films are about things like 'the aestheticisation of politics' (Good Morning Mr Hitler). The Papermen is 'a metaphor for the men / demons conjuring up the notion of something insubstantial that can be blown in the wind like ghosts or dreams'. The leaflet for Nemesis has a pastel drawing of dolphins, and asks the reader to get in touch with their stories: 'We hope to pour another potion into the melting-pot of the future.' Somehow it all lacks that magic touch of good old-fashioned bad taste.

And why should we limeys be any good at this schmoozing business anyway? The word doesn't even have an equivalent in British English (it means, roughly, chatting, cultivating contacts, shooting the breeze). Pushed forward, protesting, one Brit denies he has a film here. Diligent questioning prises out the information that he does, in fact, have an idea to offer. 'It's called Young David Copperfield. Dickens,' he mutters before beating a fast retreat.

Mark Frith, here with The Spillway, a feature-length script, recalls that when he went to an earlier market he didn't even have a business card. 'I felt a real schmuck getting one, but it obviously helped. And,' he adds, with a very British modesty, 'I feel we've got a decent product, so we're not embarrassed about selling it.'

The balloons of hot air may seem increasingly inevitable in an industry where ever more media jostle for ever decreasing attention. Last week John Woo was God, according to the flyposters. This week, it's Mike Leigh (on the cover of Premiere magazine). But the evidence is that less could just be more, when it comes to selling movies.

The feeling at Raindance is that Danny Cannon was robbed - the director took rotten reviews for his first film The Young Americans. But some reckon it was Cannon's brash, in-your-face manner that told against him: the American hustle didn't work for him on his home turf. That view is shared by Howard Cohen, who acquires films for the LA office of the Samuel Goldwyn company, and is one of the few moneymen in evidence (they get into Raindance for free and some 100 are expected, but today they are scarcer than hens' teeth). 'British film-makers will be politer and easier to deal with,' he says with a measure of relief. 'I haven't yet seen the level of desperation that you find with Americans trying to get into the movie business. The fringe wannabes in Los Angeles are the worst of all. Film-making is about perseverance, it's not necessarily about posturing.'

But, shades in place, Grove is buzzing. 'This is not a festival. It is crass] Commercial] The Americans soon figured what Raindance was all about. They faxed. They phoned. You have wonderful craftsmen here, but British film-makers have forgotten how to market their own films.' He is confident, as only the seasoned entrepreneur can be, that the lesson will be learnt and his event a success. Only the title is a misnomer: so far the weather, sunny after weeks of torrential downpours, has refused to rain on his parade.

(Photograph omitted)