Sundance 2011 filmmakers face new reality

PARK CITY, Utah Thu Jan 20, 2011 12:13pm EST

1 of 3. Sheila Harmon of Park City walks her dog Lola past the Kimball Art Center before the start of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, January 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Urquhart

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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - When the 2011 Sundance film festival opens on Thursday, makers of independent movies, distributors and fans all face a new reality after recent years in which investors fled the industry and companies closed.

While some players remain the same -- The Weinstein Co. is still around, so are Fox Searchlight and Focus Features -- there are several new companies playing the indie film game. And new technology is changing the way low-budget movies reach audiences in theaters and in homes.

In a welcome plot twist at Sundance 2011, all that change has brought an excitement to the festival not seen for several years. The new players are bringing a more rational business perspective, and digital technological advances are helping the low-budget movies that screen here reach wider audiences.

According to festival director John Cooper, this year's selection of some 115 feature films playing Sundance generally reflects a desire among directors to look reality squarely in the face and build stories around how they fit into that world.

"They are sticking more to the truth within themselves and the stories they have to tell," Cooper told Reuters.

"There are several films dealing with religion, faith and redemption, and we kind of can't help but think it has something to do with the world we are living in."

Cooper, in his second year running the festival that is backed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute for filmmaking, will open the event with four movies: one documentary and one narrative each from U.S. and international filmmakers.

SHOWBIZ, INDIE STYLE

U.S. feature film "Pariah" tells of a lesbian teenager who yearns to come out of the closet in her home neighborhood. U.S. documentary "Sing Your Song" looks at the life and social activism of singer Harry Belafonte.

Irish film "The Guard," which is described as "a clever, fresh character study" of a village cop, opens the world cinema section along with British documentary "Project Nim," from Oscar winner James Marsh.

It tells of a chimpanzee, Nim, who in the 1970s was part of an experiment to teach chimps traits of humans, but Nim's story really reflects on our humanity.

Coming into the festival there are, as always, movies generating industry buzz, including "Little Birds," about two teenage girls (portrayed by Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker) learning about life and love, and "The Ledge" in which two men are forced to examine their lives.

And numerous stars will again turn out on the snowy streets of Park City, Utah in the mountains east of Salt Lake City where the event is held. Oprah Winfrey is expected to promote documentaries on her new OWN TV network.

Money will be on the minds of distributors and financiers looking to scoop up the next "The Kids Are All Right", paying small for a big box office hit. After about three tough years, experts say business is looking up, if conducted sensibly.

The good news is that digital downloading and streaming of movies from websites like iTunes or Netflix has opened up new avenues to reach audiences and new ways to make money. The bad news is that making sizable profits from new distribution remains five or more years away, the experts added.

That means traditional revenues from box office, DVDs and TV pay-per-view are still the key ways to make money. For a few indie films, box office is buoyant, but DVD and TV revenues are soft. That dynamic has market players hopeful, but wary.

"This year, you'll see a large amount of (movies) make their way into the marketplace, but in terms of making your money back, it depends on what you spend," said Tom Bernard, co-head of long-time indie distributor Sony Pictures Classics.

Elizabeth Redleaf, whose relatively new production company Werc Werk Works is screening its heist movie "The Convincer" here, put it another way. "People, I think, are much more conscious of their money."

(Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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