NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Sundance will bring a reliable cast of characters when it opens Thursday. Actor Sam Rockwell will hobnob at the Riverhorse restaurant in Park City. Festival chief Robert Redford will endorse indie film at the Eccles theater. Dealmaker John Sloss will manage wee-hour buyer visits to his condo.
But this year's festival will bring a few sights that might make seasoned attendees drop their badges. A number of unlikely Sundance types -- from big studio producers to a television production banner to the son of a former Disney CEO -- are making their way to the Utah ski resort.
Sundance, the specialty world's blend of trade show and high school reunion, always brings together an unlikely mix. Partying college students, European directors, swag culture and specialty execs all bump up against one another. You might be at a Miramax party and Tara Reid might happen in, grind on the dance floor for five minutes and leave. And you might watch her for a few minutes, then turn back to Miramax Films chief Daniel Battsek and continue your conversation about the auteur theory.
But even by the eclectic standards of Park City, this year will see some unusual players in the fray.
Producer Mark Johnson, best known for such big studio productions as "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Rain Man," is involved with two films at the festival: the Southern melodrama "Ballast" and the Maria Bello missing-wife saga "Downloading Nancy."
Sacha Gervasi's only film credits are writing the Warner Bros. hairdressing comedy "The Big Tease" and Steven Spielberg's Tom Hanks/Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle "The Terminal." But he is rolling the dice with no distributor on his directorial debut, the low-budget documentary "Anvil!" -- billed as a nonfiction version of "This Is Spinal Tap."
Big-time Hollywood producers Barry Levinson and Art Linson will be at the festival with the Hollywood spoof "What Just Happened?" starring Robert De Niro. And Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed the hit comedy "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" and is attached to a big-screen version of "Magnum, P.I.," will unveil "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," a literary adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel.
"Some people might be intrigued by the idea that the guy who did 'Dodgeball' is doing this film," Thurber said. "But I don't think it's necessarily that there are indie directors or studio directors anymore but that there's subject and subject matter, and some is aligned to indies and some to studios."
Indeed, Sundance speaks to what experts say is an indie flowering of sorts. The trend toward such stars as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney producing and starring in independent productions has, of course, been going on for a number of years. But now it's spreading outward. With many indies astonishingly well capitalized and also offering a comparative degree of creative freedom, a new class of producers and directors is entering the world, with Sundance as their front gate.
"The world's changed," said Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore. "Films a lot of people wouldn't have given the time of day to a little while ago they now seriously consider. Sensibilities have opened up."
The prototypical indie producer has evolved too. One of the most buzzed-about titles this year is the last-minute addition "Hamlet 2," an irreverent comedy musical starring Steve Coogan. It comes from new film producer Eric Eisner -- yes, he's the son of that Eisner, former Disney CEO Michael.
In another era, Eisner the younger might have gone to work as a conglomerate executive like the Murdoch sons, but he decided to branch out. "I've always been a little more entrepreneurial," he said. "There's a thrill in building a company and starting from scratch."
Nor is it just the personalities that have morphed -- it's the films and, increasingly, the audiences they're seeking. This year's lineup includes movies that might not have been at the Sundance of another era.
Producer Sandy Climan is bringing the U2 concert movie "U2 3D," a slick multimedia extravaganza that began getting raves when footage was shown at Cannes. Climan said the film's Sundance screening would raise its profile among a young and discerning tastemaking audience.
HBO Films is bringing Ryan Fleck and Anna Bowden's follow-up to "Half Nelson," the sports drama "Sugar," to the festival. But though the company is shopping the star-free film for distributors, it may end up debuting on the pay TV network. Sony Television is debuting "A Raisin in the Sun," star/producer Sean Combs' update of the Lorraine Hansberry play that will air on ABC next month after the Oscars.
"Raisin" not only is the first made-for-TV movie to attend the festival, it's also a first for feature producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, known for such Hollywood fare as "Chicago" and "Hairspray." Their entry into the festival shows that movies that merit the Sundance seal of approval can come from places few previously thought to look.
"There's an irony here that after all these years of being in features, we go to Sundance with a TV movie," Zadan said.