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Sundance spectrum broad, often digital

Fest to bow Jan. 18-28, sans Miramax

This article was corrected on Dec. 10, 2000.

The competition lineup of the 2001 Sundance Film Festival will cover “a spectrum that is broader than it’s ever been,” per fest topper Geoffrey Gilmore, encompassing more digitally shot, low-budget features as well as bigger-budget titles with notable stars crossing over from the film and television worlds.

World’s most prominent festival devoted to American independent cinema will unspool in Park City, Utah, Jan. 18-28.

Acknowledging that he has been in talks to assume the reins at a Warner Bros. Classics specialized division, but stressing that “there is a lot to be worked out” before such a move could take place, Gilmore is heading into his 11th fest as programming chief.

At this stage, he believes that “there is a real problem in the marketplace for independent films, a saturation that makes it a crowded and difficult place. There are a lot of questions as to how to succeed financially. The grosses for independent film are not what they’ve been in the past, which brings up a whole assortment of issues.”

The problems Gilmore has in mind have been reflected in the lackluster B.O. for such “hot” Sundance titles from this year as the big prize winner “Girlfight” and “Chuck and Buck,” for starters, as well as in the simultaneous rise in the number of distributors that actively seek out indie product.

Miramax absent

Also telling is the fact that this will be the first year in memory that Miramax, the granddaddy of the current generation of independent distribs, will have no films on display at Sundance.

The reasons for this are at least threefold, per Gilmore: A number of potential candidates weren’t finished in time, the Weinsteins’ company has become much more production- than acquisition-and-distribution-oriented and their lineup has become more overtly commercial in intent.

While the number of total submissions of dramatic/narrative features was up by just five titles over last year, 849 to 854, “there was a big increase in digital submissions, but a lot of them were really bad,” said Gilmore. “It was obvious that the filmmakers hadn’t developed their work, they hadn’t developed the scripts. I saw work done on digital that I never would have seen on film. You get people making films that shouldn’t be making them.”

Documentary submissions were up from 347 last year to 390, while features from all sources submitted to the fest increased from 1,650 to 1,759.

Gilmore and his associate director John Cooper, who’s been with the fest for 12 years, estimated that at least 25% of the dramatic competition submissions this year were in the form of digitally shot features, while perhaps 40% of the documentaries were done in the format.

Digital ready

All the Park City venues are equipped for high-definition digital projection (a couple of the fest’s Salt Lake City theaters are not), although it remains unclear how many features will be presented this way, pending filmmakers’ decisions about transferring their work to 35mm.

Seventeen films were presented digitally last year, when Gilmore felt “there was still a fear of the stigma of digital” among most filmmakers. Fest directors noted that, to their knowledge, no submissions were lensed in 16mm, and only a couple originated in Super 35.

One innovation this year will be an online component to Sundance, which will offer about 25-30 titles (rolled out over the course of four days) to the public at large. Web site will then remain up for 30 days.

Gilmore sees this as the beginning of a process to deal with what form online filmmaking and distribution will take over the next decade.

“Everyone’s still arguing over what Web production is: Is it just a delivery system or a production format? Is there a certain look just for a small screen or not? Is it all digital or not? We’re just trying to encourage people to experiment, try out different formats and so on,” Gilmore said.

All the online titles, which will be announced in about a week, will be on the short side, Cooper said. “Right now, it’s very oriented toward a very youthful audience. I think in three years, it’s going to be very cool and in demand.”

More toons

Gilmore and Cooper were able to pinpoint no important trends among this year’s submissions, but did note a few developments: A bit more animation and films with special effects (something that one never expects in indie fare); a solid contribution from black filmmakers (most of them looking at the seldom-examined black middle and upper-middle class, not the ghetto); a slight decline in films directed by women (but not in female roles, which are plentiful this year); and a gratifying number of pictures in the category Gilmore likes to call the Cinema of Ideas, in which serious issues are broached and dealt with in complex and/or unexpected ways.

“(Overall) the spectrum of aesthetics in each of the sections is as broad as it’s ever been,” he mused. “Quite a few films push the edge in terms of avant-garde aesthetics, and there is just as much far-out stuff as there is material that you could call soft or melodramatic.

“There’s a lot of rebellion being expressed in these films, and not following the rules,” he added.

In 2002, the year of the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, Sundance will take place a week earlier than usual, beginning the second week of January.

Following on this page are the films selected for the dramatic and documentary competitions, as well as those in the American Spectrum sidebar. (Titles in the Premieres, World Cinema and other sidebar categories will be published in Wednesday’s Daily Variety.)

DRAMATIC FILMS | DOCUMENTARY FILMS | AMERICAN SPECTRUM FILMS

DRAMATIC FILMS

  • “The American Astronaut,” a campy, midnight-style musical in black and white, directed by prolific shorts maker Cory McAbee. Pic concerns a shipping contractor chased through a “rustic solar system” by a demented killer. Features the Billy Nayer Show band.

  • “The Believer,” screenwriter Henry Bean’s first feature, from a true story about a young Jewish man who rejects his faith and joins the neo-Nazi movement. Stars Ryan Gosling (“Remember the Titans”), Billy Zane and Theresa Russell.

  • “The Business of Strangers,” debut director Patrick Stettner’s dark thriller about a successful businesswoman (Stockard Channing) and her young assistant (Julie Stiles) who toy with a slow-witted businessman (Fred Willard) while stuck at an airport hotel.

  • “The Deep End,” the first film directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel since “Suture” in 1993. In Lake Tahoe, a woman (Tilda Swinton) hides the dead body of the gay lover of her closeted 17-year-old son. Pic’s based on magazine story “The Blank Wall,” which was the inspiration for Max Ophuls’ 1949 meller “The Reckless Moment.”

  • “Donnie Darko,” the feature bow by Richard Kelly. It’s a weird, effects-laden yarn about a suburban teenager who hears voices and must navigate through time portals to save his loved ones. Produced by Drew Barrymore, who plays a small role.

  • “Green Dragon,” directing debut by Timothy Linh Bui, who co-wrote the story for his brother Tony’s Sundance prize-winner “Three Seasons” two years back. Tony returned the favor on this one, a tale of a young Vietnamese brother and sister sent to live in a refugee camp at California’s Camp Pendleton Marine Base in 1975. Features Forest Whitaker and Patrick Swayze.

  • “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell’s opened-up adaptation of his popular Off-Broadway musical about a rock ‘n’ roll singer from the former East Berlin. New Line will distribute.

  • “In the Bedroom,” actor Todd Field’s directorial debut about grief and lost love stemming from a family tragedy. A Good Machine production starring Tom Wilkerson, Sissy Spacek and Marisa Tomei.

  • “L.I.E.,” as in Long Island Expressway, a first feature from Michael Cuesta about a teenage boy who gets involved in a provocative, “Lolita”-ish relationship with a mysterious older man, played by Brian Cox.

  • “Lift,” directed by DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter, whose “Black & White & Red All Over” screened at Sundance four years ago. The drama stars Lonette McKee as a shoplifter who tries to repair her relationship with her daughter in inner-city Boston.

  • “MacArthur Park,” initial feature from Native American actor Billy Wirth. This realistic portrayal of drug users and dealers in the Los Angeles park features Balthazar Getty and familiar music biz performers.

  • “Memento,” directed by Christopher Nolan (“Following”). The thriller concerns a man suffering from memory loss who struggles to maintain his wits while looking for his wife’s killer. This IFC pickup was well received at the Deauville and Toronto fests.

  • “Scotland, PA.,” directed by first-timer Billy Morrissette. The black comedy take on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” concerns a couple who conspire to take over a fast-food emporium in early-’70s Pennsylvania. Stars James LeGros, Maura Tierney, Christopher Walken and Kevin Corrigan.

  • “Sleepy Time Gal,” first color feature by Christopher Munch (“The Hours and Times,” ” Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day”). Pic is about a dying woman (Jacqueline Bisset) who hopes to find the daughter she put up for adoption at birth.

  • “Some Body,” debut feature by Henry Barrial and the only digitally shot entry in the dramatic competition. The film concerns the difficulties faced by a woman in her late 20s who wants to break out of her sedate marriage into a more exciting life.

  • “30 Years to Life,” initial feature by Vanessa Middleton. The ensemble comedy focuses on six black professionals in New York City who all hit their 30th birthdays during a 12-month period.

DOCUMENTARY FILMS

  • “An Unfinished Symphony,” directed by Bestor Cram and Mike Majoros. Pic’s an investigation into the legacy of the Vietnam War and the protests against it.

  • “Chain Camera,” directed by Kirby Dick. The film’s a compilation of videos by high school students who were given cameras to tell stories of their own choosing.

  • “Children Underground,” directed by Edet Belzberg. Pic concerns abandoned children living below the streets of Bucharest, Romania.

  • “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition,” directed by George Butler (“Pumping Iron”). This account of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s extraordinary expedition and survival efforts in 1914-16 was already acclaimed at its Telluride fest premiere.

  • “Go Tigers!,” directed by Kenneth A. Carlson. The film recounts a season of the Massillon (Ohio) Tigers high school football team, in a rustbelt town where football is all.

  • “Home Movie,” by Chris Smith (“American Movie”). Pic concerns the strange choices people make when looking for a new home.

  • “The Legacy of Cotton,” directed by Susan Froemke and Deborah Dickson with Albert Maysles. The film focuses upon a poor Mississippi family and a county school system to investigate a cycle of poverty that has persisted since the end of the Civil War.

  • “Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind,” directed by Stanley Nelson. Pic’s a biography of the controversial black leader of the early 20th century.

  • “The Natural History of the Chicken,” directed by Mark Lewis (“Cane Toads”). The film takes an eccentric look at the many roles played by chickens in human life.

  • “Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey,” directed by William Greaves. The film profiles the first person of color to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

  • “Scout’s Honor,” directed by Tom Shepard. Pic concerns the conflict between the Boy Scouts of America and the movement that has protested its exclusion of gays.

  • “Scratch,” directed by Doug Pray (“Hype”). Pic looks at hip-hop deejays.

  • “Southern Comfort,” directed by Kate Davis. The film concerns “transgendered cowboy” Robert Eads and his fight for life as he falls in love with a male-to-female.

  • “Startup.com,” directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaimm. Pic charts the birth and growth of the new-media company GovWorks.com. Artisan will distribute.

  • “Trembling Before G-d,” directed by Sandi Simcha Dubowski. The film follows Hasidim and Orthodox Jews who come out as gays and lesbians.

SPECTRUM FILMS

  • “Acts of Worship,” directed by Rosemary Rodriguez, about a young drug addict who finds a way to survive in New York City.

  • “After Image,” directed by Robert Manganelli, a thriller about a crime scene photographer and a serial killer who creates a video diary of his crimes. Features John Mellencamp and Terrylyne.

  • “Dancing in September,” directed by Reggie Rock Bythewood for HBO, a love story set in the milieu of the production of a black TV sitcom. Stars Isaiah Washington, Marcia Cross and Jay Underwood.

  • “Diary of a City Priest,” directed by Eugene Martin, a vid-shot feature in which David Morse portrays a priest who must adapt to the change in his Philadelphia parish from white working class to a black ghetto neighborhood.

  • “The Doe Boy,” directed by Randy Redroad, a coming-of-age story centering on a Native American hemophiliac. With James Duval.

  • “Haiku Tunnel,” directed by Jacob and Josh Kornbluth, a 35mm lensed comedy in which the latter stars as a temp secretary whose failure to send out 17 important letters sends him into a personal crisis.

  • “Invisible Revolution,” directed by Beverly Peterson, a documentary about the conflicts between neo-Nazis and an anti-racist group in Indiana.

  • “Jump Tomorrow,” a U.S.-set romantic comedy by Brit director Joel Hopkins, about an African immigrant who falls in love with a woman while on his way to meet the woman he’s supposed to wed in an arranged marriage.

  • “Manic,” directed by Jordan Melamed, about a violent teenager (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) forced to confront his source of rage in a juve mental institution. Also stars Don Cheadle.

  • “Margarita Happy Hour,” directed by Ilya Chaiken, a working class drama of the vicissitudes of several formerly beautiful party girls now looking middle age in the face.

  • “Miss Wonton,” directed by Meng Ong, a look at the American dream in the tale of a young Chinese woman’s first year in New York City.

  • “Raw Deal: A Question of Consent,” directed by Billy Corben, a provocative docu account of a rape case in a Florida frat house in which some of the boys videotaped the incident.

  • “Roof to Roof,” directed by Ara Corbett, a black-and-white feature about an auto mechanic and his seven-year-old daughter in the Armenian immigrant community of Glendale, Calif.

  • “Tape,” directed by Richard Linklater (“Slackers,” “Dazed and Confused”), digitally shot feature about three friends (Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Robert Sean Leonard) who meet 10 years after high school to finish some old business.

  • “Wet Hot Summer,” directed by David Wain, a spoof of summer camp movies, set in 1981. Toplines Janeane Garofalo and David Hyde Pierce.

  • “Women in Film,” directed by Bruce Wagner (“Losing You”), a portrait of three Hollywood women, an indie producer having a breakdown, a casting director whose baby has been born blind and a sociopathic masseuse. Stars Beverly D’Angelo, Portia de Rossi and Marianne Jean-Baptiste.

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