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Sundance Film Festival Unveils 2011 Competition Lineup

The festival as a whole this year features 115 films from 30 countries, including 94 world premieres and 40 first-time filmmakers. Once again, the selections were drawn from a larger pool than the previous year: 3,812 feature submissions (1,943 U.S.; 1,869 international).

The world cinema dramatic competition category includes work from Colombia (All Your Dead Ones), Ireland (The Guard), Norway (Happy, Happy), Rwanda (Kinyarwanda), Israel (Restoration) and Cuba (Ticket to Paradise). Dai Sako’s Japanese Abraxas features the intriguing logline: “After botching a speech on career guidance at a local high school, a depressed Zen monk with a heavy metal past realizes that only music can revive his spirit,” and actor Paddy Considine delivers the U.K. drama Tyrannosaur.

The global menu for documentaries includes work from Australia (Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure), Ghana/Switzerland/U.S.(An African Election), India/U.S. (The Bengali Detective), Sweden/U.S. (The Blackpower Mixtape 1967-1975), Germany (The Green Wave) and the Netherlands (Position Among the Stars). Man on Wire director James Marsh returns with the U.K. film Project Nim, which takes a look at the chimpanzee who was taught to communicate with language as he was raised like a human child.

While everyone was unsure of the sales landscape going into last year’s fest with distributors dying and purse strings necessarily tightened, the outcome turned out to be fairly robust, if much more restrained. More than two dozen Sundance-screened films found homes (sometimes twice), though only a few —The Kids Are All Right, Blue Valentine, Buried —were nailed down during the 10-day festival. Most happened in March or later, as dealmakers adopted a more patient approach.

“That spark that happened last year at Sundance has been carrying through in the marketplace and at festivals like Toronto, so this year hopefully we’ll be going in in a really positive place,” says Cooper. “I was excited that people are energized again back into the trenches. We were pleasantly surprised to see it was very healthy at our festival last year, and what’s been even more encouraging is to see those films performing out there in the world.”

Winter’s Bone, which won the dramatic grand jury and Waldo Salt Screenwriting awards at the fest in 2010, in particular has gone on to healthy box office ($7 million) and serious awards recognition, including winning the best feature at the Gotham Independent Film Awards and earning seven Spirit Award nominations.

Groth notes how Roadside Attractions was surprisingly successful in getting Winter’s Bone a wider audience. “I love being at the grocery store and hearing two older people saying they saw this great film,” Groth says. “You could tell they’re not in the film industry, they found that film. That’s a great success story.”

Cooper adds: “You’re afraid these are ‘Sundance Moment Films,’ and you know they’re working there, but will they go outside?” He points to the healthy post-Sundance runs of 2010 films Restrepo, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and The Kids Are All Right, which grossed $21 million domestically for Focus Features after it grabbed the film for around $5 million after last year’s first screening.

This year will showcase a surprising number of higher profile films going into the fest without distribution, which could mean more potential buyers stick around past the typical Monday eject. “I think it’s going to be a very active festival on that front, for sure,” says Cooper, who also notes that sponsorship has risen anew—the festival has five presenting sponsors (the highest level) for the first time in years.

One major logistical change that will affect the Sundance experience is the loss of the Racquet Club Theatre, which is being completely rebuilt this year. As a result, the U.S. narrative competition films will now be shown at the Library Center Theatre, which has 154 fewer seats. At the same time, the out-of-competition New Frontier section has been moved from Main Street to the Miners Hospital near the Library, so “it’ll be pretty hectic there,” Groth admits. “That should be a hot area this year.”

Those moviegoers who use the wait list will be most affected by the shift. But locals around Kimball Junction will have a greater variety of films to choose from this year as a result, since several of the Racquet Club selections will now show at the Redstone Theatre.

“What feels good to me is the overall health of the filmmaking community and how it’s growing more organically and not so sensationalized,” says Cooper. “A lot of our filmmakers in the Premiere section had another film at Sundance in competition in the last few years. The people in the dramatic competition had a lot of shorts in the festival in past years. So it’s really this growing, earned talent.”

A complete list of Sundance's 2011 competition lineup follows on the next page.