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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Only a few years ago, a first-time filmmaker might bring a good movie or fresh idea to the Sundance Film Festival and, simply because they made it into the event, walk away with a paycheck. But not anymore.
Sundance, the top U.S. gathering for independent film, headed into the second-half of its 10-day run on Tuesday with only a few titles, including thriller "Buried," having been acquired by distributors.
Gone are the days when headlines trumpeted record-breaking sales ("Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006), and distributors bought movies here just to be a player in the market for low-budget dramas and comedies made outside Hollywood's studios.
Those heady times of the late 1990s and 2000s have been replaced by a greater focus on what makes a film unique and more business savvy about production costs and marketing.
"There's just a greater sense of having to be smart," said Jason Constantine, president of acquisitions and co-productions of independent studio Lionsgate, which acquired "Buried."
That thriller stars Ryan Reynolds as a U.S. contractor in Iraq who is buried alive. Directed by Rodrigo Cortes, it takes place entirely in a coffin and becomes a race against time for the contractor to meet a ransom demand using a cellphone.
After two years of tough times, optimism held sway over the industry coming into Sundance 2010. A glut of films had slowly worked off meaning fewer films at box offices, and several companies had closed their doors making for fewer competitors.
An overall rise in box office receipts for 2009 bolstered hopes. Movies that worked well amid the recession were lighthearted comedies, adventures and even musicals. Even Oscar winner "Slumdog Millionaire," an indie film of 2008, had an ultimately uplifting tale of a poor boy overcoming huge odds.
But the twist of Sundance 2010 is that organizers have promoted a theme of renewal of the festival's original mission to support artistic voices. And generally, many filmmakers here in the past favored dark human dramas and tales of despair.
That irony -- feel-good movies making for hits compared to the darker subjects of Sundance -- made industry watchers question whether this year's event might prove to be a bust as a marketplace because the movies may not be what audiences want.
Yet, the indie arena executives say, not so fast.
"I wouldn't say grim movies don't work," said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker. "Movies with dark subjects are harder (to market), but they can work when they are as dynamic as 'An Education' or 'Precious.' You have to have something very distinctive."
"Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" is a dark tale of an abused teenage girl that debuted at Sundance 2009, and it has been a major hit in the indie arena with roughly $45 million at U.S. and Canadian box offices.
To be sure, "Precious" was based on a popular book and had the backing of Oprah Winfrey. But before Oprah, Sundance crowds were wowed by its artistry and scenes of fantasy.
By comparison, another Sundance 2009 movie was the fairly standard young-love story "Paper Heart," which had a rising star in Michael Cera but earned $1.3 million at box offices.
Jay Cohen, head of film financing at the Gersh Agency, a top Hollywood talent group, counsels filmmakers it's no longer good enough to have only a fresh idea or great script. "It's about standing out, being apart from the crowd," he said.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman