Sundance sets sail amid storm clouds


With a tough economy, a presidential inauguration and the specter of Proposition 8 protests hovering over Sundance, festival leaders Thursday stressed the event's importance and survival, even in difficult times.

Sundance founder Robert Redford said that despite downturns in film financing and the larger economy, filmmakers will secure the means to make the movies that audiences will respond to. "Art will find a way," he said at an opening news conference. Reappearing later to make opening-night remarks, Redford added that with change in the air in the White House and in the culture generally, "This could be a very inspiring time for artists."

The hyphenate also offered careful but pointed comments aimed at those who would target Sundance with boycotts or protests because a member of the Mormon church, which supported California's anti-gay Prop 8, owns a Park City theater used for fest screenings.

Redford said the festival is predicated on offering a platform of diverse voices, making it particularly ironic that it would be the subject of gay-rights protests.

On the industry side, there are more modest expectations about the sales market, but it is hard to keep prefest optimism completely under wraps.

"If the films are good, they will sell," one seller said. "And this year they look especially good."

At the least, the fest is poised to show an eclectic and potentially career-making slate of films.

The tone was set with the unconventional choice to screen Adam Elliot's Australian clay- animation movie, "Mary & Max," featuring voice work by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Toni Collette, as its opening-night film.

The movie, a whimsical meditation on loneliness and friendship with strong doses of humor and quirkiness, played well at its Eccles debut. The story of a pen-pal relationship between a young girl in Australia and a fortysomething man in New York could find a distribution home with a specialty division like Sony Pictures Classics, which demonstrated with "Persepolis" that it knows how to handle poignant animated tales.

Elliot charmed the audience when he said that shooting the stop-animation movie for 57 weeks was "like making love and getting stabbed to death at the same time." He played down the general expectations about his film and perhaps films in general. "I know there's a lot of hype and buzz," he said. "(But) it's just a film; it's just a story."

This year's Sundance also will share the calendar with the quadrennial event of a presidential inauguration taking place during the festival.

Despite the potential for distraction, Redford said he didn't mind if it meant some festgoers left town and said the timing of the events in D.C. was propitious because he expects the new administration to be strongly supportive of the arts.

Redford, who has played a charismatic young political candidate himself, then semi-jokingly batted down a question about his role in an Obama administration. Asked whether he could become a potential arts czar, which has become a pet cause of entertainment mogul Quincy Jones, he offered a succinct "no."

He also took a parting shot at the outgoing Bush administration, which he has targeted in recent years at his opening-day news conference.

"I'm glad to see the gang that couldn't shoot straight out of there," he said, then added, "For a lame-duck president, he sure has been quacking a lot." (partialdiff)