Sundance debuts with Harry Belafonte documentary

PARK CITY, Utah Fri Jan 21, 2011 2:17pm 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) - The Sundance Film Festival opened on Thursday night with a new look -- four feature films instead of only one, including a documentary about calypso singer Harry Belafonte and a teen lesbian drama.

The documentary, "Sing Your Song," follows the social activism of the 83-year-old singer of "Banana Boat Song" and "Scarlet Ribbons." Belafonte has been at the vanguard of the U.S. civil rights movement, anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa and ending gang violence on the streets of Los Angeles.

Sundance founder Robert Redford called Belafonte's tale "a story about a man whose story should be told for generations to come," and the documentary earned a standing ovation.

The other screenings included: "Pariah," the tale of a young black lesbian who yearns to come out of the closet; "The Guard," an Irish buddy-cop comedy starring Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson; and "Project Nim," a British documentary about a chimpanzee raised as a human being in an ethically questionable experiment.

The annual showcase for independent movies runs through January 30, and takes place as bold discoveries from last year's event, including "The Kids Are All Right" and "Winter's Bone," vie for attention during Hollywood's awards season.

Sundance chief programer John Cooper, in his second year at the helm, told Reuters that this year's selection of some 115 feature films 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 said.

"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."

BUZZ AND BUSINESS

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.

Numerous stars will again turn out on the snowy streets of Park City, a ski resort east of Salt Lake City. 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 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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