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At Sundance, hopeful directors will do anything for a break

PARK CITY, Utah -- So this kid accosts me last Thursday night while I'm standing in the lobby before the Robert Altman film.

"You gotta see my film," he says, pulling a videocassette from the depths of his goose-down parka.

"I just can't," I say. "Believe me. People try to give me tapes six times a day. I'm here to see the movies, and I don't have a VCR, and there's no room in my luggage, and besides, I can't review a movie that isn't going to open anywhere."

"But this is a great film," he says.

"I hope it is," I say, "and when it opens in a theater, I hope I agree with you."

"But it's only 20 minutes! So how long would it take for you to see it?"

"Twenty minutes," I say, after a quick mental calculation. "But like I said. . ."

"Yeah, yeah," he says.

"So now you probably think I'm a seven-letter word."

"No," he says, "but someday I'll be a great director, and I will remind you of this moment."

"Good luck," I say. "No, really."

At that point, the story should end. If it did, it would be like a dozen other conversations I've had here at Sundance, where the Sun-Times is not paying my expenses so that I can sit in my room watching home videos by kids who are gonna be great someday. But this story doesn't end there.

Saturday afternoon, I'm standing in the coffee shop of the Yarrow Inn, a motel where they hold press screenings. There is a large-screen TV behind me. It's tuned to ESPN. I'm talking to the three stars of a movie named "The Outfitters." They're all sitting in front of the fireplace: Paul Le Mat ("American Graffiti," "Melvin and Howard"), Danny Nucci ("The Rock") and Sarah Lassez.

A voice in my ear says: "All you have to do is turn around. My movie is on the TV set."

It's the kid. The giant screen TV is no longer tuned to ESPN. Now we are looking at "Bobby Loves Mangos," and it says "A Film by Stuart Acher."

"What'd you do? Bribe the manager?" I ask.

"Kind of," he says.

"But I have to go to a press screening in 10 minutes," I say.

"I'll have them hold it for you," he assures me. "I work here."

"Hold it?" I say. "They're not gonna keep three dozen people waiting so that. . ."

"Don't miss the opening scene," he says.

It takes a certain unrelenting determination to pitch your project at Sundance. Ordinary social inhibitions do not apply.

I sit down next to Danny Nucci. We look at the screen.

A school principal arrives at work. His secretary gives him a package. He goes into his office. It is a videocassette made by one of his students, named Bobby. Bobby is currently about 8 years old, but on the tape looks about 40. It is a tape from the future. Bobby wants to warn the principal about a school bus accident that is going to happen the next Friday. Fifty students will be killed. Bobby will survive only because he eats mangos, which he's allergic to, and so is kept home from school.

"This looks like a professional film," I say quietly to Nucci.

"Look at the editing," Nucci says. "He knows where to put his camera, how to move around, when to go in for a closeup."

The story continues. "This is really good," I whisper to Nucci. Le Mat looks over and nods. I look around. There is now a crowd of maybe 15 people watching the TV. They're absorbed in the story. It's a fascinating premise, and it develops like "Twilight Zone -- The Movie" meets "Groundhog Day."

Finally I have to rush to the press screening. I tell Acher he is obviously a director of professional caliber. I'm almost late for the screening. They're not holding it for me.

Afterward, I come out into the hallway, and there's Acher again. He wants to know if I want to see the rest of the film. I would, I say, but right now I have to go to another screening.

I get some facts. He's 22 years old, the film was his thesis project at Boston University, "and two companies are interested." (At Sundance, the phrase "two companies are interested" is automatically attached to every unsold project.)

I walk into the lobby of the Yarrow and run into David Eick, a senior vice president of the USA Network. He's here looking for stuff. I tell him about the kid and his film. Eick is intrigued. We go back into the coffee shop. The kid talks the manager into putting the film back on the TV again. As I leave, Eick is watching it, with Acher right next to him.

Will Eick buy it as a short? Will he offer Acher a deal to develop it as a made-for-TV feature? Will Miramax hear about it and start a bidding war? Will Stuart Acher become a great director? There are a million stories at the festival, and this is one of them.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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