PARK CITY, Utah– October Films partner Jeff Lipsky called for independents to fight the MPAA ratings system during yesterday’s Sundance Film Festival panel discussion on producing and financing independent film.

In what emerged as one of the hottest issues at the festival, Lipsky said that the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Classification and Ratings system has been “co-opted by major media outlets as a means” of censorship. He said that independents should pressure MPAA president Jack Valenti “to recognize censorship,” which is created when newspapers, radio stations and television broadcasters prohibit or regulate advertising for NC-17 and unrated movies.

Lipsky’s pronouncement brought cheers from the near-capacity crowd at Park City’s 500-seat Carl Winters School Auditorium. Neither MPAA president Jack Valenti nor Classification and Rating Administration chairman Richard Heffner could not be reached for comment.

The event, moderated by Seth Willenson, featured some of the top buyers for highbrow, low-budget fare, including Fine Line’s Ira Deutchman, Sony Pictures Classic’s Tom Bernard and Live Entertainment’s Ronna Wallace. Generally, buyers maintained that gloom and doom for indie producers was on the way out, as international markets and new distribution patterns emerge.

“The mind boggles when you think China will come on line for product, and actually pay in dollars,” said Peter Kares, an executive with international distributor Pandora Films.

Buena Vista acquisitions veepee Jere Hausfater said that Disney’s bid to build its own international distribution operations contributed to the Burbank-based giant’s recent bid for Merchant Ivory Prods. and “Sarafina!” He said fledgling Buena Vista Intl. is looking for “pictures with European directors and European themes,” as the company separates itself from its longstanding relationship with Warner Bros. Intl.

Hausfater underscored the point by disclosing that Buena Vista Intl. will distribute director Carlo Carlei’s “Flight of the Innocent.”

The exec said that Buena Vista plans to distribute “Flight of the Innocent” in European markets.

The all-white panel also bandied about the subject of African-American films in the independent marketplace. Kuhn said that “until recently, films with black faces in (them) were impossible to sell in the Pacific Rim,” but he noted that the company has decided to go with such pix as “Posse” despite commercial biases in some countries.

In another specialized topic area, Sony Pictures’ Bernard said the domestic theatrical potential for lesbian films “is certainly good in the independent marketplace,” while Fine Line’s Deutchman said independent movies are “not necessarily divided by race or sex, but by people who go to the movies and those that don’t.” He said gay audiences have consistently proven their appetite for specialized movies at the box office.

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