Sundance on upslope

Ticket sales way up for Park City festival

As the Sundance Film Fest gets underway tonight in Park City, Utah, there are signs that it’s safe for film buffs to come back again.

According to the fest, tickets sales are up dramatically over last year, as newly-installed festival topper John Cooper and his No. 2, programmer Trevor Groth, redouble efforts begun by Robert Redford and former fest director Geoff Gilmore to drown out the glitz factor and give the art of filmmaking more space to shine.

According to the fest, more than 185,000 tickets have already been sold, 5,000 to 10,000 more than at the same point last year. That includes 1,000 more ticket packages and passes.

The economic collapse was part of the impetus for Sundance’s attempt to return to its roots, eliminating some of the lookie-loos and commercialism that might have kept some away.

Last year, for the first time in more than a decade, it was actually possible to find lodging right up to festival time. This year, the same holds true, opening up the event to more film fans whose reactions could be helpful to ever-more selective buyers. This year, studios that have shuttered their specialty arms could be among the bidders looking for potential commercial specialty titles.

Fest has changed up the program, eliminating the opening night gala this year.

Instead, critics and buyers will get right to work as “Howl,” starring James Franco as Allen Ginsburg, screens tonight. Also screening tonight will be Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s docu “Restrepo,” about their time in Afghanistan with U.S. soldiers.

On the business side, the mood is optimistic, even with the massive contraction in the specialty biz over the past 18 months. Buyers say there is always room to cut a deal for a good movie, and there are a number of available titles still without U.S. distribution. “It was probably a natural correction. Things feel a little better, like we’re a little bit out of the worst of the financial crisis, and maybe the world isn’t over,” said Sundance vet Bob Berney, who now runs distrib Apparition with Bill Pohlad.

People want to walk away with product,” Berney said.

At least two Sundance pickups from last year went on to have high profile releases: Lionsgate’s “Precious” and Sony Pictures Classics’ “An Education.”

While bigger events like the opening night gala or William Morris’ big Sundance bash (that was before the agency became William Morris Endeavor) are AWOL this year, there are still plenty of cocktail parties and dinners tied to particular films throughout the festival.

In past years, gifting suites at Sundance — in some cases, based in luxurious chalets — made headlines around the world for their extravagance. Fest organizers have no control over companies trying to make the most of the Sundance brand, but there appear to be fewer this year.

Official Sundance sponsors are Entertainment Weekly, Hewlett Packard, Honda and Sundance Channel.

Attendance is expected to be on par with last year, possibly higher. The fest says last year there were 40,291 festgoers. Of those, 13,699 were from out of state.

Demo-wise, 52% of those who attend Sundance are females between the age of 26 and 35 with a household income of between $50,000 and $99,000, and employed outside the film industry (81%).

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