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Schussing over highs and lows of Sundance

MERITS AND DEMERITS: Producer Lawrence Bender received two awards — one official, the other less so — at Sundance.

“Fresh,” which offers a youthful perspective on inner-city violence, was cited with the Filmmakers Award. And, on a more personal note, Bender received the Slopes Award, given annually to the industry light who sustains the first skiing injury at the event. He hobbled to accept it on crutches.

There were other winners in unrecognized categories worth mentioning. Ilka Jarvilaturi and Paul Kolsby won the Guerrilla Marketing prize for unbridled creativity promoting the Estonian pic “Darkness in Talinn.” Their tongue-in-cheek handouts and posters promised such things as “starring Sly Estallone and Sharon Estone” in the cast.

And let’s not forget actress Alicia Witt, who won a special acting citation for her work in “Fun.” She ascended the stage and frantically proceeded to thank, among others, her agent and publicist. Producer/director Rafal Zielinski and the screenwriter somehow got ignored. Oh, well, movies just happen out of the ether.

And while others were proving the Newtonian theory that it’s impossible to cram 750 people into a condo for a party, one host was worthy of double honors. RHH/Albert G. Ruben & Film Finances Ltd., along with Fred Milstein and Tulchin/Ades Entertainment, not only received best credited party honors, the consortium also had the best assist to indies. In addition to the usual refreshment, one could wander up to the top floor and receive a professional massage for those weary bones.

SOMETHING IN DISGUISE: Paul Zehrer, writer/director of the in-competition “Blessing,” was just one of many who received their first brush with industry flattery. His heart-rending coming-of-age, rural-set debut drama not only got distribution nibbles but had Zehrer dodging and hob-nobbing with agents, managers and producers.

“I was really taken aback when people came up to me, obviously emotionally moved by the picture,” Zehrer said. “Then some said, we’d like to rep you or could we talk about making your next film. I’ve never had that before and it’s putting a lot of unexpected pressure on me. It’s taking a lot to just hold back and consider options.”

However, he’s already proved himself a shrewd strategist. He first screened the film last fall at New York’s Independent Feature Market. He said the sole purpose was to get it seen by Sundance organizers and into the festival. Then he sat on the hit of that market. Acquisitors wanted to screen it and fest directors wanted it in their program. But he turned aside all offers so “Blessing” could receive its first major exposure at Park City.

The rest is yet to be written.

ONE HECK OF A MOLEHILL: If you believe Sundance is all high art, guess again. One of the most talked about entries was the sexually provocative “Sirens” from Australia, which features Sam Neill and Elle Macpherson and, appropriately, is on Miramax’s upcoming release sked.

Following its premiere, the town was abuzz with decidedly un-Kaelish commentary, such as, “Did you ever expect her (Macpherson) to have such large breasts?” Elle just wrinkled her nose, but director John Duigan responded to questions about a male masturbation scene with, “He’s only playing with himself and there’s a world of difference.”

FIRING BLANKS: One joke eliciting a tremor of laughs notes how Disney got so shook up in the quake that its new telephone prefix was changed to 911. That may account for last weekend’s jostling in box office reporting. The company low-balled such entries as “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” and “Tombstone.”

Buena Vista had the Western, for instance, with a three-day gross of slightly more than $ 2.9 million. When queried about the number, an exec insisted the pic fell flat on Sunday.

However, one tracking agency — monitoring about 1,300 of its 1,817 playdates — reckoned on more than $ 3 million from the sampled theaters alone. But profit participants need not tremble. On Friday, Disney recalculated and “Tombstone” was resurrected to $ 3.3 million.

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