By Christine Kearney
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The Sundance Film Festival kicks off on Thursday, starting ten days of movie screenings and providing the launching pad for some of the world's top low-budget features and documentaries at the largest U.S. gathering for independent filmmakers.
The 117 movies to be screened at the festival held in the ski resort of Park City, Utah were selected from 4,042 features submitted, including 24 in competition.
Festival director John Cooper, Sundance's chief programmer, spoke to Reuters about the tone of the films selected and how first time filmmakers can be hopeful with new technology making films easier to turn around and offering a variety of platforms for films to reach audiences.
Q. What are you seeing that's different in the overall tone of the films selected this year?
A. "What I am seeing in general is that the independent film movement or community is maturing a little bit. The bar gets set higher each year. It doesn't seem to be leveling off. Each year the films are coming in with more depth of quality and over arching completeness and vision. This bar is set and other filmmakers coming up through the ranks know that is there."
Q. Some thought that with technology improving cameras and editing and sometimes making it cheaper to make indie films it might go the other way -- that quality might diminish with a more crowded field, why do you think quality is improving?
A. "There are a lot of factors. There is more of a community base now as to how they work. I am noticing much more a sharing of cinematographers, of actors and ideas.
"Also what is a happening is that independent filmmakers are looking at a different artistic life for themselves. They are not quite as fast or may never really want to jump to the big Hollywood film or situation for themselves. What a lot of people have learned and what is coming back in the younger filmmakers especially is they want to work in a way that makes them excited and fulfilled."
Q. What about documentaries that premiered last year such as "Senna" which went on to be popular with critics and audiences? What about this year's batch, what themes are you seeing?
A. "They came in a little different this year. They came in a little more overarching and more comprehensive of the issues that are facing the world. Last year they seemed very character-driven with more of a personal perspective. And this year we shift back and forth a little bit, but there are more about issues like hunger, the war on drugs, about global warming and the healthcare crisis. They are very topical issues on a much bigger more comprehensive scale."
Q. Is Sundance still the place for first-time and second-time directors? How has that changed?
A. "It has ramped up I think. It is not just an event for the filmmakers, it is talent too. There are actors that are going to pop out of this festival. For example, the woman from 'Filly Brown,' - it is multi-level discovery."
Q. Investors began to flee the market beginning around five years ago, but last year Sundance saw a more optimistic mood and numerous business deals. Any predictions for this year?
A. "We had a very successful year last year so people are coming to the festival with expectations, which is scary to me sometimes, because it doesn't really mean that much to me. There seems to have been a bit of a market correction both on the filmmakers side with the cost to make a film and what they sell for. It is a little more realistic. But it's very hard to tell.
"What I do know is when I watch the audiences respond in the theater, there is a market for them. Not even a market - there is an audience for them. Now how we connect the right audience to the films -- and I know that these films aren't for everyone but they are for a lot of people - that is where we are still in a big flux."
Q. Are older distribution methods -- theatrical and DVD -- still the key to making money? What stage are we at with web streaming?
A. "I still think theatrical is very real. But it's trickier. Now the talk is not so much about delivery systems but marketing systems. That is the first big shift. And then it's going to be about how you get the films themselves."
Q. Sundance recently announced a new deal for films selected
to be streamed online on sites including iTunes and YouTube should the filmmaker wish. How should filmmakers feel about this going into the festival?
A. "I hope they will step into the festival and breathe easier knowing that there is this great opportunity for them."
Q. Is the divide between Hollywood and indie film growing or getting less?
A. "I think the divide is growing. As Hollywood has its problems with financial things and needs to make films of a certain size, you are splitting, where maybe 10 years ago there was a blending a little bit."
(Reporting By Christine Kearney; editing by Patricia Reaney)