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Docs are hot at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The Sundance Film Festival entered its second week on Monday amid a cooling market for buying films, while documentaries stole the spotlight and Hollywood insiders defended the indie spirit of star-filled movies like “What Just Happened?”

Robert De Niro gestures as he answers a reporter's question at the premiere of "What Just Happened?" during the 2008 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 19, 2008. The Sundance Film Festival entered its second week on January 21, 2008 amid a cooling market for buying films, while documentaries stole the spotlight and Hollywood insiders defended the indie spirit of star-filled movies like "What Just Happened?" REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Sundance is the top U.S. festival for movies made outside Hollywood and 2008’s first stop for distributors of independent films looking to snap up titles they hope will be among the hottest movies in art houses for this year and 2009.

Coming into the festival, buzzed-about films included “Sunshine Cleaning,” about sisters who clean murder scenes, “The Wackness,” telling of the friendship between a pot-smoking psychiatrist and his dope-dealing teenage client, and “The Great Buck Howard,” a tale of movie star eccentricity.

But in the marketplace for movies that takes place on the Sundance sidelines, none of those titles had found a buyer, most were receiving so-so reactions from audiences, and many of the formal reviews were mixed at best.

“The story so far is good movies but not commercial movies,” said David Poland, founder of Web site Movie City News and a veteran Sundance watcher.

Before the festival began, some in the industry expected sellers would find a hot marketplace because distributors would be looking to fill their pipelines in case the Hollywood writers strike continued indefinitely and left them without movies to make.

But late last week, film and television directors settled a contract with major studios, and insiders think the striking Writers Guild of America will agree to a similar deal quickly.

“It seems to me the writers don’t have much choice,” said Art Linson, producer of “What Just Happened?”, an insider’s look at making Hollywood movies and one major producer’s life.


Like other films including Linson’s comedy “Sunshine Cleaning,” directed by Barry Levinson, raised eyebrows of some low-budget filmmakers at Sundance who questioned how they could compete with films starring the likes of Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. “Sunshine Cleaning” has Amy Adams and Emily Blunt.

Linson and Levinson defended the independent spirit of their movie, saying it was without studio funds to retain storytelling freedom, and the stars worked for less than their normal salaries.

“Why should high-powered actors be penalized and have people say they can’t make a smart, cool movie,” Linson said. “If ‘independent’ means coming together to do something that is a labor of love, then this is a truly independent movie.”

With the cooling market for fictional films, attention shifted to documentaries, or “docs.” One title that sold this past weekend was “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” about the Oscar-winning director convicted of unlawful sex with a minor.

“Polanski” was bought by Weinstein Co. for international distribution and by HBO’s documentary unit for North America.

Music-themed nonfiction films also drew much attention, including “Young @ Heart,” about a chorus of senior citizens who sing their own versions of rock songs, and “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” about the former punk rocker.

“Young @ Heart” is wowing audiences, and director Stephen Walker reckoned one reason was because it didn’t have any stars. “Sundance isn’t about glamour, and that works for this film,” he told Reuters.

Irish band U2 drew a huge media crush when they arrived at Sundance to show “U2 3D,” which is a digital, three-dimensional film of their 2006 “Vertigo” tour through South America.

Sundance still has six days to go, and many more movies to be seen among the some 120 feature films that are playing here. The event ends on January 27 following an awards ceremony.

Editing by Jane Clark and Philip Barbara