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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - After a dismal 2008, the forecast for independent films appears somewhat brighter as a glut of movies works its way through art house theaters, executives said on Monday at the Sundance Film Festival.
But good times are still distant, perhaps as far off as 2010, and improvements won't come without changes such as lower star salaries and reduced production and marketing costs.
Executives hope Internet distribution can stem the tide of slowing DVD sales, but remain uncertain about exactly how to use the Web, to release films or simply to promote them.
"The sky did fall. It's fallen a lot," Mark Gill, chief executive of independent producer The Film Department, said in a panel at Sundance, the top gathering for U.S. independent filmmakers held in this mountain town east of Salt Lake City.
"I think in 12 to 18 months we will be down to about 350 theatrical releases, which will give room to breath," he said.
Panel members noted that in recent weeks, the box office success of art house movies such as gay-themed "Milk," ($20 million) and Indian love story "Slumdog Millionaire" ($44 million) have demonstrated a healthy appetite for well-made movies that fall outside mainstream Hollywood fare.
Both are still playing in theaters and expected to increase their total ticket sales. Also, movies like independently made vampire romance "Twilight" ($185 million) can still catch fire at box offices and cross over from niche to mass markets.
"The theater box office seems to be thriving, especially for a number of indie films," said Sony Pictures Classics co-chief executive Michael Barker.
Sundance, founded by Robert Redford and in its 25 year, supports and promotes independent filmmakers. Distributors flock here to buy inexpensive films from mostly new talent.
Past successes go back to Steven Soderbergh's 1989 movie "sex, lies and videotape," and in more recent years include 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine." Box office hits and booming DVD sales lured more players in the 2000s, and the result has been too many movies in theaters and on retailers' video shelves.
Last year's big Sundance comedy "Hamlet 2," purchased by Focus Features for around $10 million, flopped at box offices with only about $5 million in ticket sales.
Still, Focus CEO James Schamus said on Monday's panel he had no regrets because he believed in the movie's potential. "I would buy it again and pay a fair price for it," he said.
The wariness of film executives was on display in 2008 and this past opening weekend at Sundance.
"Two years ago at this festival, more films sold into the marketplace than any year Sundance had ever had," said festival director Geoffrey Gilmore. "Last year ... numbers went from over $50 million (in sales) to something like $20 million."
So far this year, only crime drama "Brooklyn's Finest" has been acquired by Senator Entertainment for just under $5 million, and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group bought comedy "Black Dynamite" for $2 million, according to reports Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
Other talked-about titles include "Humpday," a comedy about two straight men who make a gay porn flick, and documentary "The September Issue," about Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour.
Financial turmoil has taken investors out of the market for funding indie films. "Only the rich and the young can afford to make movies in the current climate," said producer Ted Hope.
Others like Wade Bradley, who heads film financing group IndieVest, saw a rebound coming. "The climate was tough in the summer, and it essentially came to a stalemate in the early fall. But lately, everyone has realized 'okay, here's what we got to do to change the game,'" he said.
Editing by Todd Eastham