Sundance filmmakers laugh through gloomy times

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The tables have turned at 2009’s Sundance Film Festival.

Jim Carrey smiles as he arrives for the U.K. premiere of 'Yes Man' in Leicester Square, central London December 9, 2008. REUTERS/Andrew Parsons

For most of the past two decades, the United States’ top event for independent film that begins on Thursday has been chock full of dark dramas about the grim side of human nature, but this year amid a gloomy real-life economy, organizers promise a broad range of movies -- some with a lot of laughs.

Jim Carrey offers up “I Love You Phillip Morris,” in which the comedian plays a con man falling for a male prison inmate (Ewan McGregor). Former “Saturday Night Live” performer Amy Poehler has “Spring Breakdown,” about women nearing 40 who take a wild holiday to a party-filled school spring break.

One of the most talked-about films ahead of the festival is director Marc Webb’s romance “500 Days of Summer,” and Sundance veterans, brothers Mark and Michael Polish are showing “Manure” about a man who sells ... well, the title says it all.

“It takes all the power away from the critics,” director Michael Polish joked about reviewers’ inability to reduce his film to poop because, in fact, that is what it’s about!

Comedy aside, the ironic twist for Sundance 2009 points to a trend of recent years in which U.S. “independent” cinema has been dominated by divisions of Hollywood studios, such as the Fox Searchlight unit of 20th Century Fox, that look for films with broad appeal to achieve maximum box office.

For evidence, one need look no farther than Sundance hits “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004).

Still, the Utah-based festival backed by actor Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute for filmmaking remains a place where different cinematic styles are championed by organizers and little-known filmmakers look for a leg up in the industry.

“There’s definitely room to discover new talent,” said Frank Wuliger, a partner with Los Angeles-based talent firm The Gersh Agency that represents filmmaker Katherine Dieckmann and her Sundance movie “Motherhood” that stars Uma Thurman.


The festival opens with the premiere of clay animation movie “Mary and Max,” which tells of a 20-year pen pal friendship between an Australian girl and a New York man.

Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore has said the movie serves as a good example of the changing indie landscape. It uses high technology, which had been uncommon until recent years, it deals with human relationships but keeps its sense of humor intact, and it points to the globalization of cinema.

“I’m excited and terrified at the same time,” said Australian director Adam Elliot about “Mary and Max,” his premiere. “There’s been a lot of hype around the film, but I keep reminding people that no one’s actually seen it yet.”

But Elliot is hopeful people will like his five-year labor of love, and his optimism seems appropriate this year.

Selling theater tickets last year proved daunting for hit Sundance titles like “Hamlet 2,” and several indie companies -- Paramount Vantage, Warner Independent Pictures and Picturehouse -- ceased to exist or radically changed their business plans.

Because of the recession, studio and other industry chiefs say they will be taking fewer staff to Sundance, perhaps as much as 10 percent less.

It all sounds grim, yet festivalgoers seem hopeful that times will get better. And they point to what may be the most-watched event this year, which isn’t even a movie. No, the hottest tickets in town are for Barack Obama inaugural watch parties.

“Politically, there is optimism and that is helping out,” said Polish. “The economy does affect the moviegoing public. As much as anything, people want to escape.”

There are few better places to do that, industry executives learned in past recessions, than inside a movie theater.

Editing by Philip Barbara