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Sundance rides again.

The man outside Dolly's Bookstore shouts into his cell phone: "I know we have a good film." Dolly's window is filled with copies of The Independent Film Producer's Survival Guide and How to Agent Your Agent. "What I don't know is, do we have a commercial film?"

Thus are the eternal questions pondered at the Sundance Film Festival, which every January turns Park City, Utah, into a cold-weather Cannes.

If you've ever channel-surfed your way to Entertainment Tonight, you've likely caught a glimpse of Sundance, spying at least a few indie-film hotties looking edgy in the snow. But TV can't prepare you for the real thing. Here, trooping down Park City's quaintly Wild West Main Street, are enough actors--Matt Damon!--actresses--Holly Hunter!--and assorted legends--Harvey Weinstein! Britney Spears!--to fill the Beverly Hills phone book. "Oh, you can't throw a cell phone without hitting a celebrity," says Teri Orr, who as a former newspaper editor and current executive director of the local performing arts center has been observing the Sundance scene for 20 years.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The film festival has its origins in the late '70s, but it didn't acquire international recognition until the Robert Redford-founded Sundance Institute took over sponsorship in 1985. The success of 1989's Sex, Lies and Videotape made Sundance a venue where independent filmmakers could win the attention of mainstream Hollywood studios and distributors. Since then, films as varied as 1999's The Blair Witch Project and 2003's Pieces of April have been launched here. More than 220 films will be screened at Sundance this month, and that doesn't count the other flicks shown at concurrent Park City festivals with such cheeky names as Lapdance, Slamdunk, and Slamdance.

To fit in at Sundance, dress the part. A cell phone is mandatory. Attached headphones and mouthpiece are helpful, and so is speaking in a foreign language. Combining all these elements is particularly good, so that as you stride along mumbling in Czech you appear to be directing alien spaceships toward their secret landing site. As for clothing, you can't go wrong wearing all black, from ski cap to Dr. Martens. As one Salt Lake City newspaperman queried last year, "Question to film people: If independence in film is so critical, why do you all dress like The Munsters?"

It's a far cry from Park City's early days as an 1880s silver-mining boomtown and from the city's long decline to near ghost-town status by the 1960s. Eventually, recalls Orr, hippies and ski bums--and, inevitably, more moneyed newcomers--discovered the town's beauty, its superb Victorian architecture, its supple snow. "We started mining the snow instead of the silver," says Orr. And now, each January, Park City mines celluloid and fantasy as well.

You can see a lot of movies in Park City during Sundance, and some are good and some are not, but usually there's one that hits you hard. Last year, for me, it was a comic short film called The Green Sheik that was shown at Slamdunk. The Green Sheik is a hapless salvage-yard employee who is briefly, futilely, transformed into a matinee idol, and the movie is strange, luminous, and unforgettable.

"It took me four years to make that film," The Green Sheik's writer and director, Cosmo Segurson, tells me. A recent graduate of California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, he financed his directorial debut by working as a cartoon animator. "Sometimes there was two years between reaction shot and the next reaction shot. The Green Sheik's haircut would change. I think I was the only one who noticed."

The Green Sheik did well for Segurson at Slamdunk, garnering him a couple of awards. He's now holed up writing his next film. "I didn't get any three-picture deal," he said. "But I had a great time. The best thing about it was meeting the other film makers. All the people were totally cool."

Sundance Film Festival: Jan 15-25 (tickets go on sale Jan 6); www.sundance.org or (877) 733-8497.
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Title Annotation:Western Wanderings; Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah
Author:Fish, Peter
Publication:Sunset
Geographic Code:1U8UT
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:663
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