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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Lesser-known movies are stealing the spotlight from star-studded ones at the annual Sundance Film Festival this week, making the top U.S. event for independent films among the least predictable in years.
Heading into the 10-day festival that began on January 17, films such as "What Just Happened?" starring Robert De Niro, "The Wackness" with Ben Kingsley, and "Sunshine Cleaning" for rising star Amy Adams captured the buzz.
But by Friday, lower-profile comedies like "Henry Poole is Here," "Choke," "Baghead" and drama "Phoebe in Wonderland" had won over audiences, and distributors had snapped up movies like "Hamlet 2" with comedian Steve Coogan, well-known in Britain but a lesser star in the United States.
The shift in focus at the festival in this ski town east of Salt Lake City underscored what organizers have long said about Sundance. It remains a place of discovery for fresh talent and for veterans looking to try on a new face.
That was on display in Thursday's showcase drama, "The Year of Getting to Know Us," starring former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Jimmy Fallon as an adult whose neglectful father has left him lacking the capacity to love.
"No one would let me do something like that. That's why Sundance exists, to give a guy like me a chance," Fallon said of his uncharacteristically serious role in the film.
Sundance, backed by Robert Redford's Sundance Institute for filmmaking, emphasizes the art of cinema over the commerce. Yet many of the independently financed films here are seeking sales to distributors for release into theaters.
Executives come to Sundance to fill their movie slate with what they expect will be the year's hot art-house titles. Before the start of Sundance 2008, the need to buy seemed acute given that the Hollywood writers strike threatened to halt production.
But despite mostly good reviews, the early star-studded movies failed to appeal to buyers. Their star power made them too expensive after 2007 saw many art house movies flop at box offices, industry watchers said.
Moreover, informal talks among writers and film studios reignited this week, easing the need to spend heavily to acquire rights to high-profile Sundance titles.
By midweek, the market was warming to titles such as "Henry Poole is Here," starring Luke Wilson as a man dealing with his illness by keeping his sense of humor. It was bought by Overture Films for a reported $3.5 million.
Dark comedy "Choke" was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a deal valued at $5 million, according to show business newspaper Daily Variety.
In Sundance's waning days, "Baghead," about four friends writing a film script, was bought by Sony Pictures Classics, and buyers were circling "Phoebe in Wonderland," a tale of a grade-school girl struggling to find herself.
On Friday Sundance offers its closing-night film, the documentary "CSNY Deja Vu," about the 1960s-era band Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and its impact on U.S. culture.
The festival reaches its climax on Saturday night in an awards ceremony to honor directors, writers and cinematographers for documentaries and dramas from the United States and around the world.
Sundance officially ends on Sunday.
Editing by Jane Clark and Xavier Briand