Play it again, Sundance

At Sundance, ”Once” isn’t enough. Many of the movies at this year’s Sundance Film Festival echo the themes of past festival hits, such as the family drama-comedy ”Little Miss Sunshine” and the rock musical ”Once.”

Familiar subjects like family dysfunction, high-school melodrama and classic rock are dominating the festival, which opens Thursday. The lineup reflects the increasingly blurred line between the studio and independent film worlds, as indie filmmakers repeat tested formulas to appeal to the mass audiences that studios covet. As the writers’ strike drags on and studios search for fresh material, bidding wars for Sundance movies are expected to break records.

While music-inspired films can sometimes spell box-office trouble, Sundance 2008 includes a number of music-focused flicks. Showing in the festival’s high-profile closing slot is ”CSNY Deja Vu,” which looks back critically at the 1960s by focusing on the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young ”Freedom of Speech Tour” of 2006. ”U2 3D” presents the Irish rock band’s 2005-2006 global ”Vertigo” tour in 3D. And ”Patti Smith: Dream of Life” is a documentary about the acclaimed punk poet.

From the same producers who made ”Little Miss Sunshine” comes a film with a similar title about difficult familial relationships: ”Sunshine Cleaning” tells the story of two troubled sisters who enter the biohazard waste removal business. Other films about distressed families include the drama ”Sleepwalking,” which traces what happens to a 12-year-old girl when her mother (Charlize Theron) takes off and her uncle (Nick Stahl) raises her on his own, and the comedic ”Smart People,” with Sarah Jessica Parker and ”Juno” star Ellen Page.

Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Sundance festival, says that inevitably some films will repeat themes. ”The industry is exhausted,” he says. But he adds that there are ”a million fresh takes on an issue.”

He says that many of the films focus on quirky, dysfunctional families not because they are trying to copy the recipe behind ”Little Miss Sunshine” but because it’s easiest to address the world’s troubles ”by not directly engaging in issues, and instead telling a personal, family story.”

Additional highlights this year include Robert De Niro as a frenzied film producer in Barry Levinson’s comedy ”What Just Happened?,” Mos Def in director Michel Gondry’s ”Be Kind Rewind” and Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ”Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?” Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s ”In Bruges,” starring Colin Farrell, opens the festival.

More than 50,000 people are expected to attend Sundance this year, up from 36,000 four years ago. Routinely, cellphones at Sundance stop working because so many people crowd Main Street during opening weekend. Studio executives say that when closing multimillion-dollar deals to purchase film rights, they have to drive six miles down the highway to the interstate to regain service.

Harvey Weinstein, the studio head and producer behind major indie and mainstream hits like ”Pulp Fiction” and ”The English Patient,” says that buying a film at Sundance is ”an endurance test. You see the film at 8, start bidding at 10 and finish at 6 a.m. There is another tone at the other festivals – at Cannes, you see the film, but then there are other things to do before buying, there’s a fabulous party to go to and you’re in a tuxedo rather than a ski jacket.”

Nearly half of the 64 films in competition at Sundance this year were made by first-time directors. Nevertheless, some say that the festival has changed in the past couple of years.

”It used to be a launching festival,” says Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics – meaning that Sundance is now a better place to buy a film than to generate publicity for a movie that’s already been purchased. ”It’s changed dramatically – now it’s all about the middlemen, about the deal that closes at 4 a.m. while other buyers are banging down the door and sitting out in the cold.”

This year, only slightly more than a dozen of the films at Sundance boast distributors before the festival begins – in part because sales agents are holding out for on-site bidding wars.

Sundance’s Mr. Gilmore says that last year the films that sold at the festival itself went for more money than ever before: about $45 million in total, he estimates.

Studio executives worry that this year some prices will get pushed up into the range of $12 million to $15 million per film owing to increased demand for material, persistence of the writers’ strike, and prospective director and actor strikes.

Buyers say they are looking carefully at three star-packed films aimed at young audiences: ”Hamlet 2” (with Elisabeth Shue), about a high-school drama course that puts on a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s play; ”The Wackness” (with Mary-Kate Olsen), about a high-school kid growing up in New York who pays his therapist with marijuana; and ”Assassination of a High School President” (with Mischa Barton), about a newspaper nerd and popular girl at a Catholic high school who investigate stolen SAT exams.

A number of documentaries are commanding buyers’ attention, including ”American Teen” (about high-school seniors in the Midwest) and newcomer Chris Waitt’s ”A Complete History of My Sexual Failures,” which chronicles its director’s love life through doctors, ex-girlfriends and his mother.

Mr. Spurlock, who scored a Sundance hit with ”Super Size Me” in 2004, returns with ”Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?,” which features the filmmaker’s whimsical journey through the Middle East to track down the al Qaeda head.

There are a record seven films from the Middle East, but many of them focus on the fringes of society there rather than the war in Iraq. ”Slingshot Hip Hop” examines the rap scene in Palestine, where the music is charged with lyrics about poverty and politics. ”Be Like Others” chronicles the lives of Iranian transsexuals and the rise of gender-reassignment surgery in the country. And ”Strangers,” an Israeli film, follows the love story between an Israeli man and Palestinian woman who meet during the World Cup finals in Germany.

Sundance began in 1978 as the Utah/US Film Festival; Robert Redford took it over in 1985 to showcase American independent film; it was renamed the Sundance Film Festival in 1991. Many of today’s most famous filmmakers got their big break at Sundance, including Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and Jim Jarmusch. The event has also launched such films as ”sex, lies, and videotape,” ”Clerks” and ”The Blair Witch Project.”

Social activities pack the Sundance calendar, including concerts and presentations featuring some of the singers from this year’s films (Patti Smith and U2’s Bono are expected) and late-night parties beginning at 3 a.m. and ending only after the first screenings start around 8 a.m.

Not everyone enjoys the hoopla. Errol Morris, the Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, likens Sundance to ”spending a week in a meat locker. … I’d rather be eviscerated by the Iroquois than go,” he says. Mr. Morris’s film ”A Brief History of Time” won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1992. ”Sundance has been very kind to me,” he says, ”but I have logged my time.”



Michael Haneke’s shot-by-shot remake of his 1997 Austrian psychological thriller of the same name. This English-language version features Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as parents who, with their son, are inexplicably terrorized by two polite young men. Resembling at times an interactive videogame, the movie toys with the audience’s acceptance of and complicity in brutality.

BOTTOM LINE: Picked up for distribution by Warner Independent Pictures, ”Funny Games” opens at theaters in mid-March.


The first feature film from Noam Murro, who has directed commercials for Nike, Powerade, Adidas and Saturn. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family struggling to recover from the loss of their mother. Dennis Quaid is the widowed literature professor who has turned inward, neglecting his kids and falling for a former student (Sarah Jessica Parker). Ellen Page (”Juno”) is his alienated, overachieving daughter.

BOTTOM LINE: Miramax and Groundswell co-produced, and Miramax will release it in April.


Director Jonathan Levine recounts a tale of growing up white, privileged and depressed in Manhattan in the summer of ’94. Rudy Giuliani is mayor, and hip-hop and marijuana are the rage. Luke Shapiro (Josh Peck, of ”Drake & Josh”) and his therapist (Ben Kingsley) find unlikely similarities in their lives, in sessions Luke pays for in weed.

BOTTOM LINE: Contains perhaps the festival’s most eagerly anticipated moment on film: a long lip-lock that Mr. Kingsley shares with Mary-Kate Olsen.


Burnt-out and bored with their lives, two sisters (Amy Adams, Emily Blunt), start a lucrative new business: biohazard-waste removal. What follows is a nightmarish version of the American dream, as the sisters follow their star and clean up after murderers and suicides. From the producers of the 2006 hit comedy ”Little Miss Sunshine.”

BOTTOM LINE: Expectations are high, but Sundance Director Geoffrey Gilmore says it isn’t strictly a comedy. ”It has humor, but a different kind,” he says.


From Jordan, this Arabic-language film with English subtitles is the story of an airport janitor and a gang of children, who mistake him for a pilot. He obliges with tales of world travel – which he has experienced only through books and chitchat at work with travelers. First-time director Amin Matalqa, 31, cast the children’s roles in Jordanian orphanages.

BOTTOM LINE: One of the first independent features to emerge from Jordan, the film is expected attract major attention from buyers.


The director of ”Super Size Me” takes on the world’s most wanted man. Morgan Spurlock says a nagging question led him to his new subject: ”What kind of world creates an Osama Bin Laden?” His search throughout the Middle East is an unvarnished portrait of a region and its peoples.

BOTTOM LINE: While expected to make a splash, the film isn’t for sale: Harvey Weinstein paid more than $2 million for North American distribution rights after seeing 15 minutes at the Berlin Film Festival.


First-time director Clark Gregg plumbs the recesses of Colonial theme parks and mother-son relationships in this pitch-dark comedy. Victor, a sex-addicted medical-school dropout, supports his mother, who lives in a private mental hospital, by working as a historical re-enactor by day and a restaurant scam artist by night.

BOTTOM LINE: The film’s main draws are Anjelica Huston and the fact that it is based on a book by the apocalyptic cult novelist Chuck Palahniuk