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Rays of hope at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah -- Beverly Hills slicksters and Manhattan indie distributors are packing their goose-down coats and Elmer Fudd hats and gearing up for the Sundance Film Festival, held every January here in this Utah ski resort, often in the middle of a snowstorm.

The Y2K edition opens today; with the opening-night premiere of "What's Cooking?" by Gurinder Chadha, an Indian-American whose story follows four Los Angeles families (African-American, Jewish, Latino and Vietnamese) through their Thanksgiving celebrations. That screening will be in nearby Salt Lake City's big Abravanel Hall, and then it's up the hill in the 4WD SUVs to brave Park City's jampacked nine days of screenings.

I remember this festival when it was small and humble. "The U.S. Film Festival in Park City," it was called in the early 1980s, and it all fit into the local Holiday Inn, with screenings across the parking lot in the triplex. Now it is the most important single festival in the United States, a showcase for new work by independent filmmakers, plus all kinds of sidebars, including world cinema and documentaries. All the big specialized distributors are here, looking for product they can release in the next year.

Guessing right can be baffling. Last year's festival included sales for such titles as "American Movie," "Happy, Texas" and "Tumbleweeds," but its biggest hit - the greatest box-office success in festival history - came right out of left field.

Like all the other critics, I'd studied the program, trying to choose among hundreds of films I'd never heard of and faxed in my advance ticket requests. Now I was standing in the baggage claim area at the Salt Lake City airport, and Jeff Dowd, a distributor's rep known as The Dude, was whispering in my ear, "Three words: 'The Blair Witch Project.' " This unheralded, zilch-budget, hand-held horror film was the one to see, he assured me, and he was right: The movie has gone on to gross something like $150 million at the box office.

Could anyone have predicted that success? Not a chance. The big boys like Miramax and Sony Pictures Classics passed on the film, and an upstart named Artisan bought it. Maybe the buzz was a hint. Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore had to keep adding extra screenings to handle the demand, and by week's end, if you hadn't seen "Blair Witch," you were out of the loop.

This year's "Blair Witch," if any, is by definition still a mystery. The festival's selections were chosen from an awesome field; Variety's Todd McCarthy reports that 1,650 features were submitted, including 849 for the 16 slots in the official dramatic competition. I could tell you the ones I have tickets for, but that would be spinning my wheels: I don't have a clue what the big discoveries will be, and maybe even The Dude doesn't, either.

I can predict, however, the festival's dominant topic of discussion: the rise of digital. This may be the first year in which more of the Sundance features were shot on digital video than film, and the festival has installed lots of digital projection equipment. The movie industry seems poised to switch over from a century of film projection to the new digital projectors, but now great controversy has swirled up around the topic, led by advocates (like myself) of the competing MaxiVision48 film system that offers a picture 500 percent better than current film or video.

At a panel discussion at New York's Museum of Modern Art a week ago, observers were startled by the audience's opposition to "dijection" and its support of traditional film projection. A Sundance panel discussion on Sunday will renew the debate. Certainly, shooting on digital is a godsend to new filmmakers with low budgets, but for mainstream commercial films, the industry has always boasted of the best possible picture; will excellence in theatrical projection be a victim of cost-cutting? Sundance will be wondering.

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