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Where biz ‘Dances with buzz

Park City vibe lets distribs take a pic's temperature

While Sundance’s feverish acquisitions game and avalanche of swag bags have branded Park City as an annual site of mythic bidding wars, rags-to-riches stories for hopeful helmers and freebie heaven, distrib execs view the fest as an increasingly important opportunity to annually launch their pics, build buzz and tweak campaigns.

Sundance should also yield clues this year as to what the ever-changing landscape of indie distribs might look like going ahead, with possible changes at Miramax Films, Paramount Classics and United Artists.

This year, Sundance will play high stakes launch pad to pics from New Line’s “The Upside of Anger” and Universal’s “Inside Deep Throat” to Lions Gate’s “Happy Endings,” Warner Independent Pictures’ “The Jacket” and DreamWorks and Newmarket’s “The Chumscrubber.”

“Endings” opens the fest tonight in Park City.

On the acquisitions front, Par Classics co-toppers Ruth Vitale and David Dinerstein, will be able to buy in tandem with corporate sister MTV Films, which partnered with Fox Searchlight on the indie sensation “Napoleon Dynamite.”

Vitale and Dinerstein will look to be aggressive players this year, possibly with the ability to score the titles they want, since Par topper Tom Freston wants such indie pics as “Napoleon” in the pipeline.

Also expected to make some aggressive moves is Warner Independent Pictures, which last year bought “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” at Sundance. The unit’s topper Mark Gill said it had “learned to walk” in its first year, and will now look to move faster.

Meantime, Miramax had been all but counted out by the competition when the company pre-bought one of the fest’s expected commercial finds, “Wolf Creek,” in recent weeks. Harvey Weinstein is expected to be on the scene at Sundance as are a trio of the mini-majors’ acquisitions staffers from Los Angles, New York and London.

Away from the bargaining table, companies will vie for attention from films already on their slates.

“With the opportunity to get a real cross-section of press (at Sundance), you can do an entire marketing plan in 10 days,” said Fine Line exec veep of marketing, Marian Koltai-Levine, whose banner has launched such pics in Park City as “Maria Full of Grace,” “American Splendor” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

She added that however a film is received, Sundance can still give execs the opportunity to set expectations.

“You go in with the hopes that a film is well received,” she said. “But (Sundance) gives you quite a good place to start, and a very good response area because you know where you stand. You get a lot of information out of it.”

Marketing mavens who look to build buzz for films with distribution already in place say Sundance’s temperament falls somewhere between Toronto — where a cardboard box might receive a standing ovation — and Cannes where hissing at the screen isn’t unheard of.

“I think that the receptions are pretty accurate,” said IFC Entertainment prexy Jonathan Sehring, whose company will unveil three pics this year in the mountains. Sundance “is a great place to launch any movie that’s coming out in the first half of the year.”

But Sundance can also push execs to the limit: IFC’s trio of pics — “Brothers,” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” and “Me, You and Everyone We Know” — will all unspool in the fest’s first three days. The shingle even has two events partying on simultaneously.

Execs say Sundance’s tony locale — and no doubt its ever-growing trend to pamper VIPs — makes it easier to lure key cast to support pics. But as the fest gains popularity, it has also become an increasingly international stage, which can put pressure on pics to perform.

“(At Sundance) you can bring in all your talent and distributors at one time,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Michael Barker. “Filmmakers love to go there.”

Barker, who runs SPC with Tom Bernard, has no fewer than five films launching, from U.K. gangster pic “Layer Cake” to martial-arts spectacle “Kung Fu Hustle” and arty “3-Iron.”

SPC has historically launched pics at Sundance, including “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Central Station.”

Barker added the real risks at Sundance lie in store for films that haven’t sold yet, where distribution teams haven’t created the right context for a pic to screen.