As the Sundance Film Festival quietly began on Jan. 18, the question in all the screening rooms, party tents, and corporate-sponsored lounges was: Would there be a Little Miss Sunshine this year? A classic success story, the crowd-pleaser that commanded a $10.5 million deal at last year's glitzy gathering was about to bask in Oscar's love. But early on, none of this year's movies were yet generating its memorable buzz, or a similar payout. Friday and Saturday rolled lazily by without news of million-dollar deals floating through the frozen Park City, Utah, air. Intentionally or not, Sundance 2007 was looking less overblown than the steroidal versions of years past.
Leave it to Harvey Weinstein to shake things up. The hard-charging exec came roaring forth by Sunday morning, and the sleepy affair came to life as he negotiated into the wee hours, offering a reported $4 million to bag Grace Is Gone, a drama featuring John Cusack as a father of two who learns his wife has died in Iraq but can't break it to his girls. (Weinstein is already planning an Academy Award campaign for the never-nominated Cusack.) ''I had a feeling the timing would be right,'' says Cusack. ''I thought the country would be coming around to a fatigue about the war, and we'd be ready to look at the cost of it. We'd start to face the truth, and look beyond American Idol for a minute.''
Judging from at least a dozen more films, that could have been the festival's general mandate. Kicking off with Chicago 10, a documentary about '60s political protesters that mixes animation and archival footage, this year's was a serious bunch, featuring titles like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and No End in Sight (a documentary about, yep, the war in Iraq). Entries like the vagina-dentata drama Teeth, and Zoo, a documentary about man-horse love, also kept things reliably dark. ''Do I think it's edgier this year? I do,'' says festival director Geoffrey Gilmore, who figures filmmakers are reacting to the grave state of world affairs. But the heavy subject matter didn't stop buyers from closing more than 10 deals by Tuesday afternoon. Execs from Fox Searchlight, which scooped up Sunshine and 2004's Napoleon Dynamite at festivals past, had already unveiled their well-received Laura Linney-Philip Seymour Hoffman dramedy The Savages. So they were in a grabby mood, and by Monday afternoon, president Peter Rice had spent a reported $4 million on psychological scary-kid thriller Joshua and reportedly just under $4 million for Waitress, the last movie from indie actress-director Adrienne Shelly, who was killed in November. Its first public screening was upbeat, but the cast, understandably, had a hard time staying cheery. ''Normally Sundance is a big party, a celebration,'' says star Keri Russell. ''This is not that.''
But the first six days still provided some goofy moments. At the press screening for the underwhelming Heather Graham drama Adrift in Manhattan, one audience member lay down on the floor and went to sleep. A festival volunteer admitted that he was high while watching Gregg Araki's stoner comedy Smiley Face and said the movie still wasn't funny. And the loudest early flop may have been Hounddog, which arrived amid controversy it was dubbed The Dakota Fanning Rape Movie and inspired a few walkouts during its first screening. ''I was thrilled it was [only] two people,'' says director Deborah Kampmeier. ''My last film [2003's teen-pregnancy drama Virgin], half the theater would be empty before 10 minutes were up!''
In keeping with the ubiquitous slogan (''Focus on Film'') plastered on buttons by festival organizers, the attendant Sundance party scene that ballooned in recent years was muted. ''There definitely seems to be fewer sequins in the snow, and much less of that annoying static that serves absolutely no purpose to anybody,'' says THINKFilm's Mark Urman, who picked up the space documentary In the Shadow of the Moon for a reported $2 million. And perhaps because the IRS started taxing star gift bags this year, or as Gilmore puts it ''it started to look pretty f -- -ing uncool for rich people to be pulling stuff off shelves and walking away with it'' the swag suites weren't as star-packed. (That might be because product publicists were sending e-mails like the one about a star who ''loved the entire Lia Sophia line so much that she asked for the entire collection grand total: $7,000.'')
By Tuesday, the festival was in the middle of a buying frenzy, and a Sunshine-like ray of hope finally burst through: Son of Rambow, a quirky, '80s-set British comedy about a boy obsessed with Rambo: First Blood, was snapped up by Paramount Vantage for just under $8 million. On the day Little Miss Sunshine blossomed into a Best Picture contender, a new Sundance darling was born. (Additional reporting by Neil Drumming, Chris Nashawaty, Whitney Pastorek, Missy Schwartz, and Adam B. Vary)