”The more snow, the better,” said Robert Redford, laughing as he surveyed Main Street in Park City, Utah, from the comfort of his new restaurant, Zoom. Some of the 9,000 visitors to the 1996 Sundance Film Festival may have disagreed: The five and a half feet of snow that fell throughout the 10-day festival made four-wheel-drive vehicles as valuable as hot independent movies. ”Maybe it’s perverse, but as long as the films get here, then I think a little inconvenience is okay,” said Redford. ”It brings the filmmakers and their audience closer together.” This year, that closeness yielded a record number of deals, as nearly a dozen filmmakers arrived in Utah with hope and left with distributors.
Conceived 17 years ago as a showcase for the kind of small film the major movie studios ignored, the Sundance festival (sponsored in part by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) has struggled to maintain its reputation as a home for maverick moviemaking even as it has become an event that’s attended by half of Hollywood. This year was no exception, as everyone from Eddie Vedder to Brooke Shields could be spotted on the circuit. But Sundance’s spotlight remained firmly on the films themselves. No director was anointed the Next Big Thing as Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) had been crowned at festivals past. Indeed, the endearingly gawky Todd Solondz, 36, was overwhelmed when his painful comedy about an equally endearing and gawky 11-year-old girl, Welcome to the Dollhouse, captured the Grand Jury Prize for drama (the film will open this spring). As his somber mien melted into a grin, he said shyly, ”Getting this kind of attention is critical for a movie like mine — it’s tricky, because it’s a comedy, but a very unsettling one.”
Dollhouse typified this year’s crop of competitors in its small-scale, gentle approach, which eschewed the high-style violence of last year’s Tarantino-inspired entries in favor of emotional melodrama and humanistic character studies — many written by, directed by, or starring women. Filmgoers gave high marks to the unabashedly sentimental Care of the Spitfire Grill, about an ex-con (Alison Elliot) who transforms the life of a lonely Maine café owner (Ellen Burstyn). Big Night, codirected by actors Stanley Tucci (TV’s Murder One) and Campbell Scott (Dying Young), served up a tasty period piece about two Italian-American brothers struggling to keep a restaurant open. And Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, the moving documentary that won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award, told the poignant story of a farm family trying to keep its creditors at bay.
Although a few Hollywood-backed productions — such as MGM’s AIDS comedy-drama It’s My Party and Gramercy’s Bound, a sexy piece of pulp about two gals versus the Mob — used Sundance as a launching pad, the festival was dominated by unknown filmmakers who quickly learned that when it comes to cutthroat competition, Hollywood has nothing on Utah.