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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 January 2007, 08:14 GMT
Time for sun to set on Sundance?
By Neil Smith
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

The 2007 Sundance Film Festival begins this week. But is Robert Redford's annual showcase of independent cinema the force it once was?

Robert Redford
Redford's Sundance Institute took over the festival in 1985
For the movie industry's movers and shakers, there is only one place to be come the third week of January.

That place is Park City, the small Utah resort that plays host each year to the largest independent film festival in the US.

Beginning Thursday, for 10 days the city's streets swarm with distributors, critics and movie fans hoping to find the next Reservoir Dogs or Blair Witch Project.

In recent years, however, the festival's stated aim of nurturing fresh talent has faced unwelcome competition from stars, studios and corporate brands keen to exploit the event for their own ends.

In 2006 a visit by heiress Paris Hilton generated more media interest than most of the competition entries put together.

Redford himself, meanwhile, has been accused of letting the event's independent vision be hijacked by studio representatives and big business interests.

"Once the festival achieved a certain level of notoriety, people began to come here with agendas that were not the same as ours," the actor conceded last year.

"Sometimes it blurred what we are doing."

But the actor and director insisted the festival's focus remained "artists who embody the independent spirit".


In its earlier incarnation as the Utah/US Film Festival, Sundance struggled to find an identity or break even.

Indeed, it was only after the event came under the domain of Redford's Sundance Institute in 1985 that it began to make its mark.

Reservoir Dogs poster
Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs screened at Park City in 1992
By cultivating young talent and original, often controversial films, the event consciously set itself apart from its larger, more established rivals.

Yet with visitors now close to 40,000 each year, Sundance can no longer claim to be the brash young upstart on the film festival calendar.

Moreover, while it can hardly rival the glamour - or indeed weather - of Cannes or Venice, it has no trouble attracting a similar calibre of celebrities.

This year's programme features films directed by Antonio Banderas, Steve Buscemi and Sir Anthony Hopkins.

And audiences lucky enough to secure the highly sought-after tickets can sample movies starring such Hollywood staples as Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L Jackson.

Such has been the demand for tickets that organisers have had to take steps to prevent them being resold on auction website eBay.

'Balancing act'

It is fair to say, however, that few of this decade's Sundance titles have gone on to enjoy the sort of global success experienced by their 1990s counterparts.

"It hasn't had so many big-name break-out hits recently," agrees journalist James Mottram, whose book The Sundance Kids charts the careers of some of the film-makers who got their first break in Park City.

Little Miss Sunshine poster
More recent festival highlights have included Little Miss Sunshine
"There is a tremendous pressure to find those hits, and you don't get them every year.

"But that doesn't mean they're not trying to unearth new talent all the time."

Mr Mottram agrees that corporate branding is now integral to the event but regards it as a necessary evil.

"In order to survive in the current marketplace it has to bring in sponsors," he told the BBC News website.

"It's a very difficult balancing act they have to pull off."

Before people dismiss Sundance as a spent force, however, he suggests they consider the Golden Globe-nominated comedy Little Miss Sunshine.

It was the hugely positive response to its Sundance screenings last year, says Mr Mottram, that persuaded Fox Searchlight to pay $10m (5.1m) for its distribution rights - one of the biggest deals in the festival's history.

With its worldwide box office takings currently standing at more than $86.5m (44.1m), it sounds like a bargain.

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