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Sundance Festival of independent films opens today

PARK CITY, Utah The future of the American film industry begins its annual convention here today, at the Sundance Film Festival. For the next 10 days, new independent films and documentaries will unspool all over town, in every possible performance space: Wherever two or three gather together, they're probably looking at a movie.

The opening night film is "Cookie's Fortune," directed by Robert Altman, an independent filmmaker in every atom of his being, and at 72 a hero for the younger filmmakers gathering here. The movie stars Glenn Close as a fierce Southern dame whose unruly family (mother Patricia Neal, sister Julianne Moore, daughter Liv Tyler) severely tests her patience.

The Altman film is high profile, and other movies during the festival also feature big names, but the soul of Sundance is in the low-budget first features that have survived a rigorous selection process. In past years, the festival has made such discoveries as Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies, and videotape"), Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs"), Edward Burns ("The Brothers McMullen") Neil Labute ("In the Company of Men") and Terry Zwigoff ("Crumb").

In its early days, the Sundance festival, then known as the USA Film Festival, was essentially an attempt by Park City real estate agents to call attention to the town; as a juror in an early year, I was taken on a tour of condos. But in 1981, Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute at his resort above Provo, as a workshop for aspiring writers and directors. And a few years later, he took over direction of the struggling festival, renaming it. Even then, Sundance was partially an excuse for Hollywood agents to write off their ski holidays - until Soderbergh's "sex, lies, and videotape" premiered here, went on to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes and transformed Sundance into a marketplace for hopeful filmmakers and those who would feed off them.

Park City is not the most festival-friendly place on Earth, and every year visitors return with horror stories of sold-out screenings, shaky projection and towed cars (the city hires free-lancers who collect a bounty for each vehicle they impound). Some screening rooms are improvised out of motel meeting rooms, with folding chairs on risers and a 16-mm. projector right in the middle of the crowd, but the situation was much improved last year with the opening of the new Eccles Theater, a spacious state-of-the-art venue.

Other films are shown in the local library, in the antique Egyptian Theater on Main Street, in a shopping mall duplex, and in rooms carved out of convention meeting spaces. In the way the festival employs every possible theater space, Sundance resembles Telluride, with two differences: Everything is not within walking distance, and there is usually a lot of snow on the ground.

It is impossible, of course, to predict what wonderful discoveries will emerge this year. By definition, they remain to be discovered. I know I am looking forward to seeing Steven Maler's "The Autumn Heart," with Tyne Daly and Ally Sheedy as a reconciling mother and daughter; Frank Whaley's "Joe the King," with Noah Fleiss and Ethan Hawke, about an alcoholic's son; Toni Kalem's "A Slipping-Down Life" with Lili Taylor starring in an adaptation of an Anne Tyler novel about a rock fan; Guy Ritchie's "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," already a hit in the United Kingdom; Errol Morris' "Mr. Death: The Rise And Fall Of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr." about a Holocaust denier; Christopher Menaul's "The Passion of Ayn Rand," with Helen Mirren in the title role, and "American Pimp," a documentary by the Hughes brothers ("Menace II Society").

There's also a special section this year devoted to Native American cinema; the usual cross-section of foreign films, documentaries and shorts; a tribute to actress Laura Dern, and a 15th anniversary revival of Gregory Nava's "El Norte," the first of the Sundance Institute projects to reach the screen.

And then of course there's the competing Slamdance festival, a piggyback event of films rejected by Sundance for one reason or another. This year, Slamdance is also sponsoring workshops, including one by John Chua titled "How to Make a Film With No Money and Sell It to a TV Network." Now that's the spirit.

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