Big Hollywood eclipses little Sundance

Robert Redford's film festival was a showcase for new talent, until it turned into a monster. Tim Cornwell reports

The two guys from Peru, as Lars Bjorck and John Alexander like to call themselves, are tooling down Main Street in Park City, Utah, in their Ford Expedition, a four-wheel drive vehicle of epic proportions. Trading acid remarks in fluent Spanish - both spent their early childhoods in Latin America - they are trying to locate the Eating Establishment, where there is a tentative date for lunch.

Lars, whose English has a distinct Norwegian accent, and John, who is still British enough after years in Los Angeles to demand crumpets for breakfast, are partners in an independent film distribution and production company called Tradewinds Entertainment. They also play in a rock'n'roll band, The Indies, doing charity gigs at Cannes and other film venues. They have been at the Sundance Film Festival for four days now, but have yet to see one of its films.

"It would have been nice to have actually gotten some tickets," Lars said. He first came six years ago, when Sundance was "small and contained, as opposed to out-of-control", and screenings were walk-in affairs.

This year, the $2,000 (pounds 1,250) festival passes sold out instantly three months ago, and Tradewinds' application was unfortunately lost in the crush.

For two weeks in mid-January, when Los Angeles is shrouded in drizzle and rain, the Holly- wood crowd has taken to flocking en masse to a one- time Utah mining town now taken over by the ski industry.

Tramping the snow in Doc Martens boots and fur cuffs, cellphones constantly at the ready, they madly network, party, ski and watch films. Tickets, however, are a remarkably rare commodity at a festival where six small screens, jerry-rigged in hotels and the city library, are now crammed to overflowing for almost every show.

Lars and John, both industry veterans, settled this year for skiing with their lawyer, lunching with bankers and half-heartedly hustling for entry to A-list parties. They reworked the script on one of six film projects and tried to snare an investor for another, Johnny Nitrate. "It's about a loser who makes bombs," explained Lars. "An explosive thriller."

Sundance was launched 13 years ago by Robert Redford as a showcase for small films made independently of the studio system. The festival is named for his character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But it has recently exploded in size, and is now rapidly moving towards a par with Cannes and Toronto, among the high spots of the American movie calendar. Both the number of films entered, 600, and the number of tickets sold, 90,000, have doubled in the last two years.

Hollywood's love affair with Sundance and the low-budget independent film started with sex, lies, and videotape in 1989. The film, made for virtually nothing, went on to earn $24m, and the fortunes of the struggling festival turned dramatically upward.

Quentin Tarantino's career jump started at Sundance with Reservoir Dogs. The Brothers McMullen, in 1995, was another huge financial success, grossing $11m after it was snapped up by a studio. Last year's instant hit was the Australian film Shine, now an Oscar contender.

An event coined as a rejection of big production values and stars with multi-million price tags, however, is now swamped with agents and executives trawling for new talent and that "hidden little gem" of a film to buy, distribute and profit from. Small-time film-makers, while occasionally professing disdain, hope desperately to be picked up. As for the locals, they refer to the swelling, leather-jacketed crowds from New York and Los Angeles as "gibs" - guys in black.

"It's gotten to be a monster," Redford said recently. "A good monster, but there it is." The buzz of this year's festival, unfortunately, is that there is no buzz worthy of the name - no new film, no Shine, that stands out.

It may feed the gripes that Sundance is now overcrowded (a new 800-seat auditorium is planned, and some screenings have been in Salt Lake City, 30 miles away) and losing its independent edge. "More adds up to less at Sundance Festival," was the rude headline in the Los Angeles Times, noting that fire marshals and police were called to some theatres to control crowds, while the showings themselves were indifferent.

One reason for the disappointment, at least among Hollywood types, may be that post-adolescent angst and anguish are playing hard this year. "Dark drama is sort of the genre right now," said Theo Paganes, a screenwriter who has just finished one of his own.

The perennial theme of dysfunctional families has gone to new extremes, with parents - in particular fathers - faring badly in the works of young film-makers attuned to the abuse-conscious 1990s. The Myth of Finger- prints, for example, is a well-reviewed dark comedy centred around the Thanksgiving holiday. But it includes an adult son, Hamlet-like in his irresolution, who must find the courage to challenge life-long emotional humiliation by his father.

In The House of Yes, set around another storm-drenched Thanksgiving gathering, another son's new fiancee is challenged by a psychopathic little sister who is bloodily obsessed with Jackie Onassis. In Star Maps a son enlists in his "estranged and corrupt" father's male prostitution racket in California.

Star Maps - along with several other films - enjoyed the Sundance fairy tale. Halfway through a screening, studio representatives grabbed the producer and took him out to a car, then corralled the director. The film - paradoxically rejected by Cannes - was snapped up for a reported $2m, with a promise of future deals for the production team. "I'm so excited," said Jeff Betancourt, an editor. "It was beyond our wildest dreams."

Peter Baxter, a 31-year-old British independent director, complained that this kind of grabfest - one Hollywood agency sent a staff of 15 to scout films - smacks of an "imperialist" attitude, and accounts for the lacklustre flavour.

He and other young film-makers helped form Slamdance, a populist alternative, though it already has a corporate sponsor and sold-out screenings. This year too saw Slumdance, an artsy, grungy affair staged in a Main Street basement stinking of incense. Slim Chance, it is joked, will be next.

Downright weirdness still enjoys a certain cachet at Sundance, however. "It wasn't really about necrophilia," said Tracy Flanagan, a screenwriter who was queuing at 6.30am for tickets. The film in question, Kissed, is described in the programme, however, as a "sensual exploration of a young woman's unusual journey into necrophilia", after she takes a job at a mortuary.

"It's a metaphor for someone who had the guts to cross over to something else," Tracy insisted. "Beautifully graphic."

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