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Sundance kicks off amid air of change

Brooks Barnes
Phillip Seymour Hoffman, left, and Amy Ryan star in 'Jack Goes Boating,' one of the independent films screening at Sundance Film Festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 31.

LOS ANGELES Can Sundance's new director redefine not just the festival but also the entire independent film industry?

The Sundance Film Festival kicked off its 26th installment Thursday, and people are chattering about all the usual things, from which films are hot acquisition targets ("Blue Valentine" is a good bet) to whether this would finally be the year that the celebrity sideshow dies down (unlikely).

But veteran festival-goers are also chewing over something more meta: This might very well be the most important Sundance in years.

For the first time in two decades, America's premiere film festival has a new director, John Cooper, and his primary goal has been to shift Sundance sharply back toward its arty roots. "Less commercial, more independent" is how he sums up this year's selections. While the roster is still stuffed with stars, Cooper may have accomplished his goal. Movies on the whole are tougher and smaller. There are fewer studio premieres. In a move many call long overdue, Sundance will introduce a section called Next, focused on "low- or no-budget" films.

With the struts kicked out from under independent film — a parade of studios have shuttered their indie divisions — Sundance's decisions have more potential than ever to have an impact on the genre, industry veterans say. This enormous, unexpected responsibility comes partly from a power vacuum. Harvey Weinstein no longer leads the independent film pack; the big buyers that remain, like Fox Searchlight, have been hammered in recent months.

"We try not to think about the industry much, but I do think people are coming here to get recharged," Cooper said.

Will Cooper's Sundance help get this corner of moviedom back on track by focusing attention more squarely on innovation? Many people think the only way to resuscitate the indie sector is to make it more of a laboratory again — to un-nest it from the overtly commercial motion picture business.

Or will such a move hurt? These filmmakers need money, and if the buyers do not see marketability, they are not going to pry open their wallets very far.

"It's hard for me to tell yet, but this year's festival will definitely help us figure out what the future is," said Christine Vachon, the producer of 60 films, including "Far From Heaven" and "Boys Don't Cry."

Sundance, of course, has tried to reel in its freewheeling ways before, with varying success. When you get this big — 113 feature films over 10 days, and more than 40,000 attendees — shifting course is very difficult.

And Sundance has always made risky selections. Last year's grand jury prize and audience award in the U.S. dramatic competition went to "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," about a Harlem teenager who suffers extreme abuse.

"To some degree, the festival blows the back-to-our-roots trumpet every year," said Bob Berney, a co-founder of Apparition, a film distributor.

Even so, Berney said he saw a clear swing back toward more daring filmmaking in the selections made by Cooper and his top lieutenant, Trevor Groth. A shift toward art over commerce is perhaps inevitable, given the market, he said. Over the past two years studios have folded specialty divisions or scaled them back drastically. Outside the studio system, financing has become extremely difficult to obtain because of the credit crisis and recession.

"I see fewer star vehicles in this bunch, and the ones with stars seem to be darker stories," Berney said.

Prominent examples include "Blue Valentine," a bleak portrait of a failing marriage starring Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, and "Sympathy for Delicious," about a paralyzed disc jockey who seeks faith healing, starring Orlando Bloom and Mark Ruffalo. "The Company Men," the first feature from John Wells ("ER"), stars Ben Affleck and Kevin Costner and tackles the dreary topic of corporate downsizing. Ryan Reynolds spends the entirety of "Buried" in a coffin.

Other films receiving early buzz include a batch made on microbudgets, with nary a star in sight. "Catfish" is a nonfiction feature made in real time about a photographer who goes through an unusual experience involving Facebook, and "Winter's Bone" takes a sparse look at a girl from the Ozarks in search of her drug-dealing father.

"It looks like the quality of films will be very consistent with past festivals — the kinds of smart, subversive comedies and subtle, elegant dramas we look for every year," said Richard Klubeck, a partner at United Talent Agency. Klubeck is hoping to sell a flurry of pictures, including Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give," about a couple's entanglements with an elderly woman.

Indeed, agents are cautiously optimistic about sales, partly because "Precious" has been a box office success.

"This potentially could be the beginning of the beginning — the renaissance we've all been hoping for," said Kevin Iwashina, a co-founder of Parlay Media, a film sales and production company.

Among other films, Iwashina is a co-representative for "8: The Mormon Proposition," a controversial documentary about Mormon efforts to ban gay marriage.

Some of Cooper's changes might appear subtle to outsiders but are the equivalent of sonic booms to regular attendees. The inaugural Next section is one. Another involves opening night. This year Sundance will forgo a splashy single premiere in favor of a shorts program and two features: the partly animated "Howl," with James Franco as a young Allen Ginsberg, and "Restrepo," a searing documentary about the war in Afghanistan.

"I could taste the dirt in that one," Cooper said of "Restrepo," directed by Sebastian Junger ("The Perfect Storm") and Tim Hetherington.

This being Sundance, there are other hot-button documentaries, including "The Tillman Story," about how Pat Tillman's family took on the U.S. government following his death from his own troops' fire in Afghanistan. But there is also some fun, including "High School," a stoner comedy, and the 3-D nature feature "Cane Toads: The Conquest." The British comedy "Four Lions" centers on a bumbling group of self-styled jihadis.

As for sure-fire celebrity free-for-alls, count on "Welcome to the Rileys" and "The Runaways," both starring Kristen Stewart of "Twilight" fame.

Cooper has held various programming jobs at Sundance since 1989, but took over as director in March. What is his state of mind, especially given the festival's renewed weight?

"Panic attack, mostly," he said.

Austin at Sundance