To filmmaking newbies, Sundance welcomes you

Redford cites 'crossover' of artists

Sundance kicked off Thursday with a star-filled screening of Focus Features' "In Bruges" and a promise from its chiefs to at once evolve while staying true to the festival's mission.

Founder Robert Redford turned out ahead of the packed Eccles screening to give his customary opening-night address. He quipped that he was there to welcome "merchants, agents (and) ambush marketers." Then he cited his belief that the indie film world is entering a new phase.

"One of the words that's been bandied about is 'change.' I'll leave that to the candidates," he said to audience laughter. But then he heralded "the amount of crossover that's occurring" as artists from other disciplines move into film.

He was referring, in part, to Martin McDonagh, the "In Bruges" director who also is a noted playwright.

Echoing a theme that has been much discussed at Sundance the past few years, fest director Geoff Gilmore talked about how the expansion of the indie world does not mean that the core mission of promoting filmmakers has been scrapped. "The festival has evolved and grown, and yet it remains the same," he said.

The screening included the film's star Colin Farrell and director McDonagh as well as some unexpected attendees in the audience, including Mary-Kate Olsen, whose movie "The Wackness" premieres today.

Because Focus already is on board to distribute "Bruges," the screening had a different feel than opening nights of previous years; last year, for instance, distributors turned out in droves to scout the opener "Chicago 10," which was available.

Still, Thursday was not a complete wash on the distributor front, as buyers were expected to turn out for a late-night festival-volunteer screening of the Canadian metal docu "Anvil."

At the opening news conference earlier in the day, Redford shied away from the politically charged remarks he made on the same Egyptian Theatre stage a year ago while prepping his film "Lions for Lambs."

"Lambs" was just one of a number of issue-oriented films that failed to find an audience in recent months, and this year's Sundance has only a few hot-topic selections. But Redford did refer to the effect of global conflict on this year's personal and more lighthearted slate.

"The world is so insane right now, so dark and crazy," he said. "The more personal a film, even the political ones, the more easy it is for filmmakers to get a grip on it all."

As Focus Features CEO James Schamus and president Andrew Karpen looked on, McDonagh discussed "Bruges," his feature debut. The film follows a haunted Irish hitman (Farrell) and his partner in crime (Brendan Gleeson) as they flee to Belgium, only to find more trouble.

Gilmore cited the film's perverse sense of humor and exploration of morality.

Gilmore proudly cited the 58 directorial debuts at this year's fest, which he said will be remembered for many years for its emerging talent.

Gregg Araki, one of the many directors whose careers took off at earlier editions of Sundance, where his nihilistic 1992 AIDS-themed film "The Living End" played, returns this year with a "remixed and remastered" version of that film from Strand Releasing and Fortissimo Films. It also will be shown next month at the Berlin International Film Festival.