Actor/producer arrives at festival with 'Spread'

What brought Ashton Kutcher, the purveyor of “Punk’d,” to the high temple of independent cinema?

In part, promotion for Sundance Premieres selection “Spread,” a guilty-pleasure sex romp in which he plays an L.A. gigolo on the make in the mode of Warren Beatty in “Shampoo.” The film’s director, David Mackenzie, previously helmed 2003 Sundance alum “Young Adam.”

But movie promotion wasn’t the whole point. Kutcher’s particular vantage point on showbiz and media, and his canny entrepreneurial willingness to exploit it, is a big part of it, too.

Kutcher, 30, has developed a response to his years in the gossip fishbowl: turning the power of media new and old inward on itself. His enterprises are far more prankish than Marshall MacLuhan-inspired, but they reflect him in the manner of Mark Wahlberg‘s shaping of “Entourage” or George Clooney‘s anti-paparazzi protests. That sensibility can be clearly seen in the TV shows emanating from his production company, Katalyst, among them “Game Show in My Head” and “Pop Fiction.”

So it wasn’t a stretch that Kutcher sprang a new conceit on the Sundance crowd: an online treasure hunt predicated on the fact that media at the festival beget a lot more media. Bloggers were looped in and, once on the ground in Park City, got instructions in emails from Kutcher then sprang into action.

One such email told recipients to find a director of a festival pic in competition and film the person saying, “Ashton Kutcher deserved an Oscar for ‘Dude, Where’s My Car?’ ” A lot of directors, with a scowl, refused to bite.

On a more serious note, Kutcher and wife Demi Moore, early supporters of President Obama, unveiled a video on MySpace that urges people to undertake public service. The video debuted on Jan. 20 in Washington.

Life in L.A. for the Iowa-bred Kutcher provides endless inspiration for his meta-schemes. So, when handed the script for “Spread,” about a hustler navigating the city, Kutcher immediately thought the pic could recall Beatty’s turn as George Roundy.

“I was fortunate enough to have breakfast with Warren two years ago,” Kutcher says. “I started digging a little bit about ‘Shampoo.’ It’s one of my favorite movies. It’s a tale of Los Angeles through the eyes of this guy making his way.”

In talking film, Kutcher departs from other stars at Sundance who cite characters’ duality or themes of alienation. He frankly calls moviemaking “trying to make a high-quality piece of product” and tosses off motivational phrases like “success is a product of preparation.”

More than a lot of multihyphenates of his generation, though, Kutcher purposely steeps himself in the history of Hollywood, taking special note of those who didn’t appreciate the sheer luck of it all.

A running gag in “Spread” has real estate agents and others referring to a particularly stunning Beverly Hills manse as “Peter Bogdanovich‘s house,” probably an obscure reference for a lot of his young fans. But it’s a bull’s-eye in Kutcher’s world, which is why he subbed Bogdanovich’s name for another, better-known, star’s in an early script.

“I was watching ‘The Dick Cavett Show,'” Kutcher recalls, “and there was an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman, Mel Brooks and Frank Capra. Peter Bogdanovich had just finished ‘Last Picture Show’ and he was the hot business. And he rolls onto the show just being the business.”

The payoff, as on “Punk’d” or his virtual treasure hunt or even, in a more constructive way, the Obama video, is what happens at the end. It’s the comeuppance. “Bogdanovich had the answer to every single question that anyone could ask. I was just going, ‘What is he doing?! Look around you!’

“I ran into him a couple months later and brought up the interview and he was like, ‘I was such an arrogant prick.’ And I have to owe it to someone who owns up to that.”

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