The festival that everyone said couldn't get any bigger just did.
The new edition of the standing-room-only Sundance Film Festival, which opened its 11-day run in Park City, Utah, Thursday with Kenneth Branagh's sentimental comedy "A Midwinter's Tale," is no longer just the showcase of choice for independent film. It is also increasingly seen as the pre-eminent American film festival, period, and it has the numbers to prove it.
Upward of 10,000 interested parties perennially descend on the tidy skiing metropolis, with the demand for tickets inevitably rising every year. And the number of ravenous journalists clambering to attend in 1996 has been, says one staffer, "just unreal, even weeks after the deadline."
Hoping to cope with this torrent, the festival opened a new 200-seat theater in a local hotel, its seventh 10 a.m.-through-midnight screen. And construction is about to begin on a voter-approved 800-seat theater/performing arts complex that will be the town's biggest venue yet.
Also increasing almost geometrically is the number of films jousting for a spot in the festival's most prestigious events, its 18-film dramatic competition and 16-film documentary section. According to Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's director of programming, some 700 features were submitted, which almost doubles the entries of just two years ago.
To help cope with this onslaught, the festival has a new section this year, called "American Spectrum," which will showcase 20 films by mostly first-time directors that for one reason or another did not make the cut for the competition.
With a grand total of 117 films (including a record 55 world premieres) being screened in all the festival's sections, the advance jockeying for media attention, complete with phone calls, faxes, news releases and screenings, was more intense than ever this year.
A movie called "Scorpion Springs" distributed handsome scorpion paperweights, while another group of filmmakers sent out cheery holiday greeting cards "Wishing you 'Synthetic Pleasures' in 96!"
Paradoxically, at the same time all this is happening the festival is attempting to counter the perception that the dread minions of Hollywood are encroaching on its turf. Even its Premieres section, where the bigger-ticket items usually go, has only two films (TriStar's "If Lucy Fell" and MGM/UA's "It's My Party," directed by Randal Kleiser) with major studio distribution attached. The biggest American names in this section (except for Al Pacino, who wrote and directed "Looking for Richard," a meditation on Shakespeare's "Richard III") are Hal Hartley with "Flirt" and Robert M. Young with "Caught," both pillars of the independent community.
And the dramatic and documentary competitions exude an almost complete sense of mystery, forcing festival-goers to practically consult a Ouija board when planning their schedules, because only a few films, like the excellent documentary "The Celluloid Closet" from New York and the surprising and off-beat "Welcome to the Dollhouse" from Toronto, have reputations based on successes in other festivals.
Other competitive films include new works by filmmakers previously successful at Sundance, like the dramatic "Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day" by "The Hours and Times" director Christopher Munch. In the documentary area, Susan Todd and Andrew Young ("Children of Fate") return with the Mardi Gras-themed "Cutting Loose," and Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, makers of "Brother's Keeper," investigate Satan worship in the Heartland in "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills."