U.S. Comedy Arts Festival on upward slope

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen may not yet have the resonance of Park City and Toronto when it comes to film fest locales, but its film presence is increasingly gaining ground, or, more aptly, starting to snowball.

This year six independent feature films are world preeming at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, held for the last 11 years at the foot of Aspen’s sunny slopes. Pics were selected this year from an all-time high of more than 1,000 submissions.

Film has always taken a back seat at the comedy fest, which kicked off this year’s edition on Wednesday and will wrap Sunday.

Comic lures loom large on the fest’s 2005 schedule: Eddie Izzard, Christopher Guest, Garry Trudeau, Cheech and Chong, Jim Carrey.

Yet there’s just as much buzz about the 23 feature films and four collections of shorts that include the Robert Brinkmann-directed “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party”; “Lucky 13,” the directorial debut of Scott Marshall, son of Gary Marshall; and “Bob the Butler,” directed by Gary Sinyor and starring Tom Green.

For films like these, Aspen provides the hope of finding a distributor. Besides the abundance of HBO execs lounging in the foyer of the St. Regis Hotel (the pay cabler is the fest’s primary sponsor), reps from the film world — from New Line’s Bob Shaye to Newmarket’s Bob Berney to ThinkFilm’s Mark Urman — are also heavy in the parka-clad mix.

According to Kevin Haasarud, film programming director for the festival, 50%-60% of the fest’s films find a limited-distribution distributor by the end of the week. Some 90% of the films secure a cable or homevideo distribution deal.

“In the early years, the film stuff was out in the suburbs, but that’s changed,” Haasarud said.

Part of the fest’s growth is tied to that of HBO, which over the last decade has grown into one of the biggest, most distinguished brands in entertainment.

Crossover deals

Event also spawns crossover deals. Past examples include Mike Binder, whose 1999 Aspen film “The Sex Monster” led to the HBO series “Mind of the Married Man,” and Luke Greenfield, whose 2000 short “The Right Hook” attracted Adam Sandler’s shingle Happy Madison. Sandler then signed Greenfield to direct “The Animal.” (Greenfield has since landed a first-look deal at Fox and is involved in several studio projects.)

To promote networking, the festival has created “The Altitude Club,” which hooks up filmmakers, film buyers and agents over a hot chocolate or, later in the day, a hot toddy.

Some of the films that arrive in Aspen are still enjoying heat generated at Sundance, such as Sony Pictures Classics’ “Kung Fu Hustle” and ThinkFilm’s “The Aristocrats.”

For these pics, Aspen is about generating even more buzz before the pics’ theatrical releases.

“Creating word of mouth from opinionmakers in comedy, and getting their endorsement, is more valuable than anything you can buy,” said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.

Bernard compared Aspen to SXSW, the annual music fest held in Austin that also features independent film.

Relaxed atmosphere

Yet no one disputes that part of Aspen’s lure is its relaxed, vacationlike atmosphere compared with which Sundance feels like New York City.

Particularly for film folks, Aspen provides relief from pure film fests that, regardless of where they’re held, never stop feeling like work.

“I have a better time here because it’s not a market. I’m not killing myself,” said Mark Urman, distribution head of ThinkFilm, who has two pics at Aspen this year — “The Aristocrats” and “Kontroll.”

Urman was standing at the “oxygen bar,” a popular service intended for urban warriors unaccustomed to the high-altitude Rockies. The bar consists of various tanks of “flavored” oxygen for festgoers in need of an O2 hit. Urman had two blue tubes pumping vanilla oxygen into his nostrils.

He said that for him, Aspen was an opportunity to spend more quality time with the filmmakers who show up (“You can actually have a conversation”) while at the same time being a few steps removed from the movie biz.

“I’ve just come home from Sundance. I don’t need to spend all my time with filmmakers,” he said, removing the tubes and inhaling deeply.

Skis or screens?

The only drawback to showcasing a film at Aspen is that almost every pic is shown during the day, thus competing with the slopes for festgoers’ attention. In contrast, most of the live comedy is performed at night.

“Showing the movies during the day can make it hard to get an audience,” said Stephen Tobolowsky, the center of “Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party,” which features him as a full-time storyteller and which bowed Thursday at 4:45 p.m., one of the later showings. “The live performances are always at night, when it’s like, ‘Let’s go out and see a show and party.’ “

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