PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Stories of Americans learning the effects of greed and excess or struggling in a weak economy have tried to captivate audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival but without one standout, sweeping success.
As the event crossed its midway point by Wednesday, several movies had sold to distributors yet some that came with media buzz and star appeal into the top U.S. festival for independent film have failed to win acclaim or shown commercial appeal.
The focus on dark subjects is typical of indie filmmaking, but it contrasts to the escapist fare and hopeful tales for which audiences haved longed at theaters in recent years of recession and joblessness. That fact had distributors concerned.
"We have seen a lot of films that we like, but there is a question on the commerciality of most of them. There is a lot of deliberations going on with what they are worth," said Michael Barker, co-chief of Sony Pictures Classics
Barker expects brisk business in the festival's second half with the number of deals possibly equaling last year's robust market, "but in dollar amounts, no. People are more cautious."
Still, there are some films hoping to break big here by urging audiences to greater personal and corporate responsibility. "Arbitrage," starring Richard Gere, is among the few movies seen as having commercial appeal with its timely morality tale borne of the financial crisis.
In the film, which also stars Susan Sarandon and Tim Roth, Gere plays a billionaire hedge fund magnate whose personal life crumbles amid a plot that is similar in parts to the Bernie Madoff scandal. Gere's character lies about company assets as he races to make even more money and save his family business.
"Madoff was clearly a very sick person," Gere told reporters about the comparison to the former Wall Street executive who now sits in a jail cell. He said everyday audiences should relate to issues of "greed, control, irresponsibility -- all those things that we all have to some degree."
Many people, he said, have had "blank spots in their emotional makeup and their sense of responsibility."
Sundance kicked off last Thursday night with a true tale of excess, "The Queen of Versailles," that follows self-made billionaire couple David and Jackie Siegel as they deal with the collapse of their business and dream mansion.
The documentary is another reflection of lost dreams, and while never really learning to live like most Americans, Jackie does return to her old roots, volunteers for charity and learns to try and cut down on excessive behavior.
The Occupy Wall Street movement showed up at Sundance to protest tax dodging, as seen in the film "We're Not Broke," which explores corporations exploiting tax loopholes. "Detropia" about Detroit's lost jobs and vacant homes directly addresses America's struggles in the manufacturing heartland.
Robert Redford launched the festival last week by talking of films that reflected "dark and grim" times, and many of the movies have delivered on that promise with scenes and references to the financial crisis even if it hasn't been a central theme.
Drama "Beasts of the Southern Wild," set in impoverished Louisiana, has been among the few movies to captivate most all of its audience. Todd McCarthy, critic for The Hollywood Reporter, called it "one of the most striking films ever to debut" at Sundance with "a handcrafted look at the struggles of some of the poorest people in the United States."
Other movies referencing hardship included "Hello I Must Be Going" about an unemployed thirtysomething, and the comedy "For a Good Time Call" about two broke female phone sex workers.
Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer" features a character living in Brooklyn's projects who continually cries out over the bailout given to banks and against Obama's unfulfilled promises while the "rich get richer." Festival reviews were generally poor.
The much-hyped comedy "Bachelorette," starring Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher, shows a group of entitled, substance-abusing women who, like another film here "Smashed," learn to curb excess with a healthy dose of life and personal responsibility.
Adapted from an acclaimed off-Broadway play, "Bachelorette" has received a mixed response in early reviews and due to strong language and drug use will likely be a hard sell to audiences compared to 2011 smash hit, feel-good comedy "Bridesmaids."
Films that have earned both acclaim and buyers include uplifting "The Surrogate" starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt about a man's quest to lose his virginity while confined to an iron lung. It fetched one of the highest selling prices so far, a reported $6 million.
Others are still awaiting their debut in the latter half of the festival, including "Predisposed," starring Jesse Eisenberg and Tracy Morgan about a piano prodigy struggling with a drug addict mother, and "2 Days in New York" is Julie Delpy's comedic follow-up to "2 Days in Paris." It also stars Chris Rock.
Reporting By Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte