Eclectic mix practices Sundance steps


Sundance will bring a reliable cast of characters when it opens Thursday. Sam Rockwell will hobnob at the Riverhorse. Robert Redford will endorse indie film at the Eccles. John Sloss will manage wee-hour buyer visits to the Cinetic condo.

But this year's festival will bring a few sights that might make seasoned attendees drop their badges. A number of unlikely Sundance types -- from big studio producers to a television production banner to the son of a former Disney CEO -- are making their way to Park City.

Sundance, the specialty world's blend of trade show and high school reunion, always brings together an unlikely mix. Partying college students, European directors, swag culture and specialty execs all bump up against one another. You might be at a Miramax party and Tara Reid might happen in, grind on the dance floor for five minutes and leave. And you might watch her for a few minutes, then turn back to Daniel Battsek and continue your conversation about the auteur theory.

But even by the eclectic standards of Park City, this year will see some unusual players in the fray.

Producer Mark Johnson, best known for such big studio productions as "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "Rain Man," is involved with two films at the festival: the Southern melodrama "Ballast" and the Maria Bello missing-wife saga "Downloading Nancy."

Sacha Gervasi's only film credits are screenwriting the Warner Bros. hairdressing comedy "The Big Tease" and Steven Spielberg's Tom Hanks/Catherine Zeta-Jones vehicle "The Terminal." But he is rolling the dice with no distributor on his directorial debut, the low-budget docu "Anvil!" -- billed as a nonfiction version of "This Is Spinal Tap."

Barry Levinson and Art Linson, both veteran studio talents, will be at the festival with 2929's Hollywood spoof "What Just Happened?" starring Robert De Niro. And Rawson Marshall Thurber, who directed the hit comedy "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" and is attached to Imagine's big-screen version of "Magnum, P.I.," will unveil "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh," Groundswell Prods.' literary adaptation of the Michael Chabon novel.

"Some people might be intrigued by the idea that the guy who did 'Dodgeball' is doing this film," Thurber said. "But I don't think it's necessarily that there are indie directors or studio directors anymore but that there's subject and subject matter, and some is aligned to indies and some to studios."

Indeed, Sundance speaks to what experts say is an indie flowering of sorts. The trend toward such stars as Angelina Jolie and George Clooney producing and starring in independent productions has, of course, been going on for a number of years. But now it's spreading outward. With many indies astonishingly well capitalized and also offering a comparative degree of creative freedom, a new class of producers and directors is entering the world, with Sundance as their front gate.

"What's interesting about the independent arena right now is how broad the spectrum is," said Sundance festival director Geoff Gilmore, who also noted that the phenomenon works in the other direction, as an influx of rising international talents such as Ole Bornedal ("Just Another Love Story") and Alex Rivera ("Sleep Dealer") increase the range of high-quality and saleable titles.

Part of this cross-polination is the increasing role agencies have played in recent years in packaging indie projects. CAA recently stepped up its game by repping its biggest Sundance sales lineup ever, many of which were assembled in-house. As it builds up its film sales group, CAA has a vested interest in keeping clients like Tom Hanks -- who produced and co-stars in "The Great Buck Howard" -- happy with low-budget pet projects.

"The world's changed," Gilmore said. "Films a lot of people wouldn't have given the time of day to a little while ago they now seriously consider. Sensibilities have opened up."

The prototypical indie producer has evolved too. One of the most buzzed-about titles this year is the last-minute addition "Hamlet 2," an irreverent comedy musical starring Steve Coogan. It comes from new film producer Eric Eisner -- yes, he's the son of that Eisner, former Disney CEO Michael.

In another era, Eisner the younger might have gone to work as a conglomerate executive like the Murdoch sons, but he decided to branch out. "I've always been a little more entrepreneurial," he said. "There's a thrill in building a company and starting from scratch."

Nor is it just the personalities that have morphed -- it's the films and, increasingly, the audiences they're seeking. This year's lineup includes movies that might not have been at the Sundance of another era.

Sandy Climan's 3ality is bringing "U2 3D," the slick multimedia extravaganza that began getting raves when footage was shown at Cannes. Climan noted that it is the first 3-D movie ever shown at the Eccles and a chance to raise the film's profile among a young and discerning tastemaking audience.

HBO Films is bringing Ryan Fleck and Anna Bowden's follow-up to "Half Nelson," the sports drama "Sugar," to the fest. But though the company is shopping the star-free film for distributors, it may end up debuting on the pay TV network. Sony Television is debuting "A Raisin in the Sun," the Sean Combs-produced and -toplined update of the Lorraine Hansberry play that will air on ABC next month after the Oscars.

"Raisin" not only is the first made-for-TV movie to attend the festival, it's also a first for feature producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, known for such Hollywood fare as "Chicago" and "Hairspray." Their entry into the festival shows that movies that merit the Sundance seal of approval can come from places few previously thought to look.

"There's an irony here that after all these years of being in features, we go to Sundance with a TV movie," Zadan said.