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Back in black: Sundance 2000 basks in 'commercial' independence

Read Jamie Allen's Postcards From Sundance

Back in black: Sundance 2000 basks in 'commercial' independence

A brief history of Sundance

List: Sundance films in competition

January 21, 2000
Web posted at: 12:41 p.m. EST (1741 GMT)

(CNN) -- It's an independent filmmaker's dream -- and reality.

Picture it: You've spent money, blood and tears putting together your first feature film, hoping it will get picked up by some big movie company and send you on your way to a glorious career in film. Best of all, your movie is being screened at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where hundreds of film executives -- the movers and shakers of the industry -- will be gathered and focused on finding "the next big thing."

Chance of a lifetime, right? Well, it used to be, according to some Sundance veterans. Sundance is famous for launching many an independent film to worldwide acclaim, including "Sex, Lies and Videotape" (1989) and "Clerks" (1994).

But now this Sundance dream, some veterans say, is getting lost in the wave of studio-backed films that have crashed Robert Redford's festival. These movies have big stars and aggressive PR staffs -- in short, they attract attention away from mini-budget, no-star indie films.

"This is probably not a P.C. thing to say, but I think the festival has definitely gotten too commercial," says Patrik-Ian Polk, the writer-director-producer of the indie film "Punks," which will be competing for the Audience Award at this year's Sundance. "I can remember just two or three years ago, Sundance was a festival that created stars like Parker Posey who really did exclusively independent films.

"Now it's just all about (the) publicity monster -- who can make the biggest splash, who can get the biggest star, who can get the hottest musical performer to play at your party," he says. "And it's not about the movie anymore.

"I think that does a disservice to the films that are truly independent in nature, that truly don't have access to that kind of Hollywood machine."


'People like good movies.'

Polk might be right; Sundance has certainly gotten more commercial, more Hollywood, as the years have passed since Redford took the helm in 1985. But not everyone agrees that opportunity is dwindling for small-time auteurs. They point to last year's indie sensation "The Blair Witch Project," which was bought at the festival by Artisan Entertainment for $1 million, and then went on to gross $140 million in domestic theaters.

"Come on, if you wrote a good movie, people are going to see it, people are going to like it and it's going to work," says Tim Olyphant, who stars in "The Broken Hearts Club," which will screen in the Premieres category at Sundance and has already found a distributor. "'Full Monty' is a huge, successful movie, right? It didn't show up at Sundance with a bunch of stars and all that crap. And I'm sure there were other movies there that year and there were big stars ... nobody cares. People like good movies.

"Stars help publicize movies," says Olyphant, "and people show up, and if it sucks, then people walk away and say, 'Don't go see that movie with the big star, but there is this other movie with nobody that I know, but it's such a fantastic thing.'"

In other words, Sundance 2000 will have it all -- little trains that could, and big trains that inevitably will. The festival, which began Thursday, runs through January 30, during which time 115 features will screen. Of those, 89 are for sale; 26 already have deals (According to its Web site, Sundance received more than 2,500 submissions to this year's festival).

The event began with the premiere of the Gurinder Chadha film, "What's Cooking," starring Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, Mercedes Ruehl, Kyra Sedgwick and Alfre Woodard. The awards ceremony is January 29, with winning films screened on the festival's final day.

Crime, women and Kevin Spacey

During the event, an estimated 20,000 people will attend the films -- most of them wearing black, the standard Sundance uniform.

Some scheduled highlights:

  • "Committed," starring Heather Graham, Casey Affleck, Luke Wilson, Goran Visnjic, Patricia Velasquez and Alfonso Arau, and "Crime and Punishment in Suburbia," starring Ellen Barkin, Monica Keena, Vincent Kartheiser, Jeffrey Wright and James DeBello, will face off against 14 other independent films vying for the festival's Grand Jury Prize in the dramatic competition; 16 documentaries will compete for a separate Grand Jury Prize.

  • Kevin Spacey will enjoy VIP treatment as he receives the Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision. He'll also premiere his latest film, "The Big Kahuna," and more than likely answer questions about his Oscar chances this year for "American Beauty."

  • "American Psycho," an adaptation of the controversial Bret Easton Ellis novel about a rapacious killer in 1980s New York, will make its debut under the direction of Mary Harron.

    Sofia Coppola's directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides," is in competition at this year's Sundance

  • Sofia Coppola, daughter of heralded filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, will screen her directorial debut, "The Virgin Suicides." Festival organizers say women like Coppola and Harron are making their mark at Sundance -- 26 percent of the films come from women filmmakers, a higher percentage than any other year.

  • "Beat," starring Kiefer Sutherland and Courtney Love, tells the story of Joan Burroughs, who died of a gunshot wound from her husband, beatnik William Burroughs.

  • Brothers Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen team up in the biopic "Rated X," a film about two savvy businessmen who succeeded in the world of porn. The film is directed by Estevez.

In a display of skewed Sundance logic, the movie "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her" (Cameron Diaz, Amy Brenneman, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter) will hold a news conference at the festival -- although publicists said the film wasn't slated to screen at Sundance. The news conference, with many of the stars attending, is just a way to drum up word on the film before it opens nationwide at the end of April.

Then there are the other festivals that crowd around Sundance, claiming true independent (and low-budget) spirit. Slamdance is perhaps the best known of the lot. An interesting offering from that fest is "Road to Park City," which follows a guy who figures it's not all that hard to make a film that will win at Sundance.

'The big deal in America'

There also will be plenty of skiing, snowboarding and partying.

"It's fun to walk around a town that's really beautiful, with the mountains and good restaurants," says Olyphant. "The only down side is the drinks -- you've got to order doubles of everything because they have all those drinking laws in Utah."

"I expect to have a good time," says Polk. "I expect it to be a little tense because we're selling (our film). It's the first time we're showing it to distributors. We've purposely held it. They've been calling for months, wanting to see the movie, and we've decided to let the Sundance monster hopefully propel the film and push us into a better distribution deal."

In 2000, it's business as usual in Park City.

"Having your premiere at Sundance," says Coppola, "it's the big deal in America. (It's) a really prestigious place to show your film." Senior Writer Jamie Allen, Correspondent Paul Clinton and CNN Entertainment News Producer Eden Pontz contributed to this report.

Sundance reveals 2000 lineup
December 3, 1999
On screen in Austin: Your future as a filmmaker
October 13, 1999
Review: 'Blair Witch' not just a walk in the woods
July 22, 1999
Review: Comedy rules among Sundance offerings
February 4, 1999
Vietnam War films win Sundance top honors
February 1, 1999
Complete list of Sundance 1999 winners
February 1, 1999
From Tylenol to black clothes, how to survive at Sundance
January 29, 1999
Imitations flatter while finding fault with Sundance
January 27, 1999

2000 Sundance Film Festival
Slamdance Film Festival
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