PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Hollywood's independent filmmakers take a strike break starting on Thursday when the Sundance Film Festival launches its annual showcase of movies made outside the big studios, now embroiled in a labor dispute with screenwriters.
The festival, backed by actor Robert Redford's Sundance Institute, is the premiere event for U.S. independent film and some of the roughly 120 feature-length films will be among the most buzzed-about movies in art houses throughout 2008.
Films such as "What Just Happened" starring Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn, "Be Kind Rewind" with Jack Black and "Towelhead" with Maria Bello will compete for the media spotlight.
Distributors will look to acquire films for release later this year and in 2009, and companies with products from video cameras to eco-friendly hiking boots will come to Sundance to hawk their wares, giving the event a carnival-like atmosphere.
Organizers promise plenty of laughter in the film dramas that typically highlight the festival, and that is good news for Hollywood strikers such as Clark Gregg, who is headed to Park City, in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, to make his directorial debut with the humor-laced drama "Choke."
"I was asking around, wondering whether we should be picketing, but I don't think so," said Gregg, explaining that Sundance festival goers already share a sense of community that lies outside the realm of the major studios.
The strike by some 10,500 members of the Writers Guild of America began in November and largely centers on fees writers want when their work appears on the Internet.
Sundance launches on Thursday night with the world premiere of "In Bruges," written and directed by award-winning British playwright Martin McDonagh and telling of two hit men holed up in the small town of Bruges, Belgium.
The movie, starring Colin Farrell and Ralph Fiennes, points to Sundance's increasing importance internationally. In recent years, the festival has bulked up its world cinema section and started competitions for films made outside the United States.
The festival reaches its climax on Saturday, January 26, when award winners will be announced from the international arena as well as 16 U.S. documentaries and 16 U.S. dramas. The festival officially ends on January 27.
On the sidelines, the major studios' specialty units such as 20th Century Fox's Fox Searchlight and independent distributors like The Weinstein Co. and Overture Films will acquire rights to release some of the movies that screen here.
The writers' strike has halted development of some movies, and industry insiders think distributors will be acquiring more finished films at Sundance this year due to the labor dispute.
"You are seeing buyers that have not traditionally attended Sundance and a larger studio presence," said David Dinerstein, distribution chief for Lakeshore Entertainment, which is premiering Luke Wilson comedy "Henry Poole is Here."
But Michael Schaefer, who heads acquisitions for Summit Entertainment, said he will look for good movies, as usual, instead of simply spending on film just to fill a slate.
"People like to discover movies there and in that way, Sundance can be a real scavenger hunt," he said.
Finally, companies such as Timberland with its "eco-conscious footwear" will be here to promote products to followers of the youthful, hip indie film arena.
Editing by John O'Callaghan