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Scrapping at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah -- At most film festivals, 90 percent of the audience members are civilians and 10 percent are employed in the industry. At Sundance, the ratio is reversed. Screenings here consist of pitches, bids, dealmaking, business card exchanging and schmoozing, interrupted by movies.

"I wanted to recapture the feelings I had here a few years ago," producer Gale Anne Hurd was telling me before the screening of a movie named "Valerie Flake." "I was remembering what it was like in 1992, when we were here with "The Waterdance." Before everything got so crazy. I even flew here coach class, just to get in the spirit."

Producers like Hurd do not usually fly coach. She's a heavy-hitter whose credits include "Aliens" and both Terminator films. But she has also produced films like "The Waterdance," a Sundance hit about a man's painful adjustment to an accident that leaves him paralyzed. Everybody understands that while "Terminator 2" was born to be a box office champion, Sundance films need tender loving care.

That's why Rosie Perez is here, plugging her new movie, "The 24 Hour Woman." She plays a TV producer who has her first child, and tries to juggle the demands of job and motherhood. The movie was written and directed by Nancy Savoca ("Dogfight," "Household Saints"), who doesn't follow the easy formulas of Hollywood packages but shows how very complicated it is to fight with your boss, your husband and your heart, all at the same time.

"I've been doing everything I can think of to help this picture," Perez told me at lunch. "I asked the producers to print up 5,000 fliers to be handed out. They wanted to know, like, why? I said because we've got to get the word out there, because the days of platforming are long gone, and a picture has to open strong to have a chance."

She used friends to pass out the fliers in New York, where the movie opens in two weeks, and passed out a lot of them herself. "I had my heart broken by a movie called `Somebody To Love' (1994), which was my first starring role and my best work, and the producer got in some kind of a fight, and although it made a lot of money in Europe it hardly even opened here. Went right to video. You have to fight for your work."

At Sundance, they're fighting. More than 800 features were screened before the final selection was made, but just making the cut here isn't enough: You have to generate buzz. You have to be sure people see your movie and not the other six movies playing at the same time.

There is a movie here named "Chillicothe," and I don't know anything about it, but I do know that three different people have pitched it to me, and one invited me to the "Chillicothe" party and another gave me a "Chillicothe" baseball cap. The way fliers, screening schedules, posters and gimmicks are spread around town, Park City feels like a high school on the day before the election for prom queen.

The festival opened with the premiere of Robert Altman's new film "Cookie's Fortune," which was very warmly received; it's a comedy set in Holly Springs, Miss., where everyone seems to know everything about everyone else. That makes it complicated when it appears to some people that a murder has been committed. Glenn Close and Charles Dutton co-star as the daughter of a local matriarch and her best friend.

"Festivals are important," Altman told the audience, "because new stories have to be told and new directors have to be found, and they need a showcase."

He recalled that his own early career got a boost when his "M*A*S*H" (1970) was a hit at Cannes ("a festival that used to be pretty good and is still OK," he said, with a grin to Sundance sponsor Robert Redford).

Walk five minutes down the street here, and you see a movie star - maybe six. I was leaving the press office when I ran into Val Kilmer, who was with Frank Whaley, an actor whose first directing effort, "Joe The King," premiered here Friday. Kilmer was wearing full snow regalia - ski sweater, down vest, muffler. Whaley, who often plays neurotic busybodies, was dressed as for another planet, in a black turtleneck and a black leather jacket. His movie stars Noah Fleiss in a remarkable performance as a young teenager from a troubled home who is in the early stages of a life of crime; Kilmer is his alcoholic father.

The day ended with "Valerie Flake," which made an obvious impression on its audience. It stars Susan Traylor as a woman whose husband is dead, and who is dealing with it through anger, hostility and isolation - even years later. The character is smart and articulate, and has a deliberately cruel style that cuts through all the ordinary rituals of grief. Traylor embodies the role, and in her ferocity might have reminded Gale Anne Hurd of the way Eric Stoltz, as the hero of "The Waterdance," lashed out against his paralysis. It's the kind of movie where people walk out saying, "I don't know who they think will come to see this. But I'm glad I did."

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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