SUNDANCE, it's been said, is just Cannes in the snow. For 10 days every January, the rustic little ski resort of Park City, Utah, perched some 6,700 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, is host to the avalanche of hype, hustle and hubris that is known as the Sundance Film Festival.

But while Cannes has sun and glitz, Sundance has ice and attitude. Sundance is a serious festival with a serious purpose: the promotion of independent film-making. It's where Reservoir Dogs caught the world's attention, where Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape was discovered, where a small British film called The Full Monty started on the road to box- office success.

There are said to be 16,000 people at Sundance this season: agents, distributors, film-makers, liggers, wannabees and, of course, the media - who are estimated to outnumber directors by three to one. In the streets, camera crews film other camera crews filming someone who might just be next year's hot talent. Restaurants along Park City's scenic Main Street are closed to accommodate a schedule of back-to-back press interviews.

Sundance is almost invariably described as "Robert Redford's Festival", though in reality he took over an existing event, the struggling US Film Festival, and made it work. That it's beena success is not in doubt - it may be the most important film festival on the calendar now - but Redford has been largely absent from things this year. He skipped a formal dinner for festival participants and he wasn't present at the opening night, the world premiere of the British feature Sliding Doors, prompting the director Peter Howitt to tell the audience that he had dreamt for years of coming to Sundance with a movie "so that Robert Redford could introduce it - and he's not even fucking here".

Redford did, however, show up for an extraordinary press conference on Tuesday to discuss British documentary director Nick Broom- field's Kurt and Courtney. The film - an investigation into the death of Kurt Cobain - had been pulled from the festival after threats of lawsuits from the BBC, which claims ownership of the film, and Cobain's widow, Courtney Love.

Redford told the press he supported his staff's decision to cancel the screening of the film, though he added: "Love had every rightto do what she did, but I do think it is ironic that someone who has benefited so much from the principle of freedom of speech is heading a campaign to keep the film from being shown."

Love's complaint against Kurt and Courtney had to do with the supposed unauthorised use of Cobain's music in the film's soundtrack. Broomfield, though, told us that "various attempts have been made to stop journalists, film-makers and writers from reporting on this story."

Broomfield, who has a habit of livening up otherwise staid film festivals (a previous documentary, Fetishes, caused some controversy in London last year), organised a midnight showing of Kurt and Courtney for the critics at Park City's Elks Lodge, under the auspices of the so-called Slamdunk Film Festival, a sort of Salon des Refusees for directors overlooked by Sundance. It was not an unqualified hit; the gossip is that the film is unfocused.

Notwithstanding Kurt and Courtney, the British have done rather well this year. The opening-night film, Sliding Doors, a romantic drama starring Gwyneth Paltrow and John Lynch, has some buzz about it - despite the director's sarcasm about Redford. Equally well-received were Twentyfour Seven, Shane Meadows's gritty and dark film about Britain in the late Eighties, and Carine Adler's Under the Skin, a small, complex feature that was produced by, of all people, the much-maligned British Film Institute. Even Britain's Minister for Film, Tom Clarke, stopped by at Sundance. on his way to Los Angeles on Wednesday to attend a reception for British film- makers.

But the two big deals announced at the festival have not been for British films. Miramax co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein (also known as Harvey Scissorhands, for his often radical editing decisions) flew in to sign contracts for Next Stop, Wonderland, an American feature described as "an unconventional romantic comedy," and The Castle, an Australian film, also a comedy, that was shot in only 11 days and is already a hit down under. There is nothing unusual about Weinstein, whose company rules the independent- distribution roost, announcing two deals at Sundance; what is raising eyebrows is the size of the deals - reportedly more than $6m each.

It may be that, as one distributor here complained, "Harvey wanders in, overpays, then wanders off to the Golden Globes." Or it may be that prices at Sundance are now becoming higher than at Cannes.