Funny business at festival bows

Entourages can add laughs to skew exec expectations

The sound of an audience laughing throatily is usually a sign that a movie is working.

But beware the Sundance effect.

At the Park City festival, loud and lingering laughter might simply mean the director has loyal, and voluble, friends.

Entourages often pack screenings, particularly the debut ones that matter most to buyers and the industry, for moral support and a little credit-sequence encouragement.

But what's happening with comedies — where reactions are more easily vocalized — is that support from entourages seems to be going beyond the credits and spilling over to the movie.

Festival audiences are famously generous; at Toronto, Canadian politeness can give way to all-out hooting even after a pedestrian film. Many festivalgoers are happy to be at a festival and see a celebrity or two and will love what they see regardless of whether what they see is worth loving. (Perhaps the exception is the Festival de Cannes, with its occasional tradition of Gallic booing after an underappreciated effort.)

At Sundance, where many movies often are world premieres and where the audience skews younger, comedies are the movies that get all kinds of love.

At several screenings during the weekend, including Jonathan Levine's "The Wackness" and Marianna Palka's "Good Dick," hearty belly laughs and high-pitched cackles followed many of the lines. Both films were solidly funny efforts, but the over-the-top laughter from certain sections of the crowd was unmistakable. Modestly humorous moments turned into scenes of hearty knee-slapping, while genuinely funny moments became full-on roarfests that evoked "Blazing Saddles," "The Naked Gun" and vintage "Saturday Night Live" all rolled into one.

At the debut screening of "The Ten" last year, the laughter was so intense that a few buyers thought they might have discovered the next "Borat." (They hadn't.)

"I find people laughing more and more at moments in some of these movies when I'm not really laughing," one acquisitions executive said. "Either audiences are getting easier or I'm getting older."

It's hard to know whether more entourages are going to screenings or if they are simply deciding (or being asked) to show some extra appreciation.

Either way, it's blurring the picture for buyers who could be influenced by the social-proof of unremitting guffawing. Distribution execs, after all, rely on how a movie plays — with a comedy, that usually means how much an audience laughs — as a kind of early focus-grouping for a possible acquisition.

That might go some way toward explaining the festival-bubble phenomenon — that is, movies that seem like a can't-miss during the fest struggle when they go out into the real world.

That's what might be known as black comedy.