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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The 25th Sundance Film Festival opened on Thursday with founder Robert Redford sounding an optimistic note for cinematic art and an artful movie challenging audiences to laugh through the pain of an imperfect world.
The Australian animated film "Mary and Max," a tale of misfits on opposite sides of the globe who find friendship by becoming pen pals, was described by festival director Geoffrey Gilmore as being about "compassion, love, friendship and ideas."
It seemed a fitting opening for 25th anniversary of the top U.S. festival for independent film; while it illustrates the broadening of "indie" movies -- it has a global perspective and uses stop-motion technology and clay figures -- "Mary and Max" reminds audiences that films made outside Hollywood's mainstream often deal with human frailty.
"It's not the sort of story you'd see from (Hollywood studios) DreamWorks or Pixar. It deals with different or marginalized characters," director Adam Elliot told Reuters. "It's something a bit odd. But at the end of the day, it's supposed to be a feel-good film."
Sundance, backed by Redford's Sundance Institute for filmmaking, has long championed non-mainstream work.
When it began in 1985, the festival's low-budget movies often centered on human dramas, and as past Sundance films like "sex, lies and videotape" and "Clerks" proved profitable, the indie market began to grow.
The range of independent films broadened to include more comedy and technology, and the movies became more global in their scope. Sundance has helped usher in those changes.
But in 2008, the industry fell on hard times. Mighty distributors like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent Pictures ceased to exist or changed business plans.
The quality and range of independent movies had improved with titles such as "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Napoleon Dynamite," but with that came more independent films competing to reach theaters. Revenues per film have fallen.
Still, Redford believes independent filmmakers will find new ways to make movies and reach fans, and at Thursday's premiere of "Mary and Max" he saw the upcoming inauguration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as a harbinger for change in the art of cinema.
"I'm actually thinking positive because when times are bad, there's always an opportunity for artists," Redford told the opening night audience.
Sundance runs through January 25 and reaches its climax at a closing ceremony where awards for the best independent films, directors, writers and cinematographers will be given in categories for dramas and documentaries. The festival recognizes films from the United States and around the world.
Over the next 10 days, stars including Chris Rock, Ben Affleck, Ashton Kutcher, Amy Poehler and newcomer Kristen Stewart, star of "Twilight," are expected to hit town.
While this year's Sundance has been overshadowed by the recession, organizers say ticket sales are up from 2008.
So, while Hollywood studios have scaled back travel to the festival -- several executives and talent agents told Reuters they were bringing five to 10 percent less staff -- and clearly there are fewer companies hawking their wares and clamoring for media attention, movie lovers remain in theaters.
They are looking for a little laughter, some new technology and maybe even human frailty -- the stuff of life.
"Art," Redford said. "will always find a way."
Editing by Eric Beech