Sundance tries to live up to its reputation

January 26, 1994|By Caryn James | Caryn James,New York Times News Service

"Success is a tricky mistress," Robert Redford said. "It's nice to have, but it's a tricky thing to embrace."

He ought to know.

Though he was talking about the Sundance Film Festival, the festival's problems are the kinds that usually nag at movie stars: How to survive the pressures of fame? How to avoid being typecast?

Sponsored by Mr. Redford's Sundance Institute and devoted to independent films, this is the pop icon among American festivals. Every January, filmmakers -- and the agents and distributors who lust after them -- must show up in Park City, Utah, or the industry will wonder what's wrong with their careers.

But the Sundance myth of small films exploding into the marketplace has always been more illusion than reality. The truth is that this year's festival is fraught with paradoxes. It opened on Thursday night with the premiere of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," a mainstream romantic comedy by Mike Newell (the director of "Enchanted April"), starring Andie MacDowell and Hugh Grant.

Between now and the awards ceremony next Saturday, viewers will see everything from a first feature called "Clerks," made for just over $27,000, to "The Hudsucker Proxy," starring Paul Newman and released by Warner Brothers.

Distributors arrived with lower expectations than usual. After all, there hasn't been a moneymaking hit from Sundance since the now-canonized "sex, lies and videotape" in 1989.

But two days into this festival, the Samuel Goldwyn Co. bought a low-budget black-and-white lesbian movie called "Go Fish" and created a frenzied sense of competition. All bets about not falling for the Sundance movie du jour were off.

And then there is the often-forgotten detail that the Sundance Film Festival does not take place at Sundance, the Redford resort, styled in Southwestern chic.

Most of the festival is held in un-chic Park City, about 45 minutes away, with some screenings at Sundance and in Salt Lake City. Anyone who has tried to park a car on narrow Main Street in Park City, or strained to hear the sound in a makeshift theater in a local schoolauditorium, can see that the festival has outgrown this place. Yet it is committed to staying.

Though Mr. Redford's determinedly low-key manner at the festival has led some people to nickname him "Ordinary Bob," his presence is never unnoticed.

Sitting in his small office at Sundance on Sunday -- the blue plaid shirt and jeans make him look as ordinary as Robert Redford can look -- he mulled over the festival's future.

"The success is there, but now what do you do with it?" he said.

"Are we just going to sit there, embrace it, dance with it? Or are we going to move ahead? My role here is to keep stating the purpose. I want to keep this festival belonging to the filmmakers, and make sure it doesn't get co-opted or overpowered by outside forces."

Those forces are lined up. There has been an influx of films from major studios, which are increasingly using Sundance's out-of-competition sections to begin marketing campaigns.

"The Hudsucker Proxy" is made by Joel and Ethan Coen, whose 1983 film, "Blood Simple," was also shown at Sundance. Universal will bring "Reality Bites," a glossy take on the "Slacker" generation, directed by comedian and actor Ben Stiller.

But the 16 films in the dramatic competition and the 17 in the documentary category suggest a return to the festival's low-budget grass roots. About half of the dramatic-competition films were made for less than $100,000, lunch money in Hollywood.

"It's not like I'm trying to become Cannes West here," said Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's program director. "To some degree the distinction between studios and independent films is becoming more and more gray, and we're reflecting that."

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