Film's Next Frontier | EW.com

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Film's Next Frontier

Tammy Faye, Johnny Rotten, Courtney Love, Charlie Sheen, and the "BLAIR WITCH" brethren. Where else but amid the madness of the SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL?

The nod. They do it for the nod. When you make your way to the 10-day, bloodshot-eyed movie marathon that is the Sundance Film Festival, you tend to fixate on the following: scoring a fat three-picture deal with Miramax. Bobbing your head to Air or Third Eye Blind at a party. Ogling Heather Graham’s moguls in those tight ski-bunny togs.

But when you boil the country’s primo independent film festival down to its raw essence, it’s really about acknowledgment on a more intimate scale…the nod.

Just one day into this year’s festival, the whole notion of the nod crystallized in Groove, an electri-fried Sundance sensation that threatens to do for the rave scene what Saturday Night Fever did for butt-hugging polyester slacks. When one of the central characters in Groove is asked why he suffers through the hassle of putting together a rave, he explains that he does it for ”the nod” — that fleeting moment when a stranger bows his head in blissful appreciation. The nod is the Sundance equivalent of ”aloha,” dense with multiple meanings: Hey. Thanks. Your movie rocked. ”I’ve given the nod and I’ve received the nod,” mused Groove’s 30-year-old director, Greg Harrison. ”At every screening, someone has said, ‘We give you the nod.”’ Sony Pictures Classics felt the same way about Groove — to the tune of $1.5 million.

Sundance itself was the prime recipient of the nod — from Hollywood — in the ’90s. Over the course of that oh-so-long-ago decade, films that rolled out of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains would snowball into avalanches of indie cool (1992’s Reservoir Dogs), then Oscar winners (1996’s Shine), and most recently, miraculous do-it-yourself blockbusters (1999’s The Blair Witch Project).

This year, on the cusp of a new decade, Sundance (sponsored in part by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) found itself anxiously teetering between the old and the new. While plenty of agents and producers sailed into Robert Redford’s 16-year-old celluloid smorgasbord gunning to top the triumphs of the past (”What’s the next Blair Witch?!” became the automatic subtext for half the conversations), others sniffed around the booths and kiosks of the dot-com companies that set up shop along Park City’s Main Street — Silicon Valley insurgents hell-bent on revolutionizing the film business over the next 10 years. Sundance is always a hunt for the new new thing, but this year the stakes were higher. Even though nothing matched the lofty-altitude lunacy that last year led Miramax to cough up a deal worth $10 million for Happy, Texas (a purchase that may go down in Sundance history as the indie Cutthroat Island), there were plenty of deals (see sidebar on page 23). The news flashes hit like a blizzard: Lions Gate took home Two Family House. Screen Gems locked up Girlfight. Fine Line bought Saving Grace — the most expensive catch at $4 million. The bullish mood might be described as thrift-shop aggression: Buy low, but buy, dammit. Fail to snap up a certain movie and you might miss out on the next $140 million cash cow. Turn up your nose at a trend and the future might pass you by. You snooze, you lose.