Sure, Park City, Utah (pop. 6,000) doesn't look much like an International Film Mecca -- but then again, L.A. was once an underdeveloped desert town. Today, 16 years after its founding, Park City's Sundance Film Festival has become big business under the guidance of Robert Redford. ''[Redford] has created a minor league for the major studios,'' says Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein. ''Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, the Clerks boys are all Redford's kids.''
Of course, not every director at the 10-day, 150-film festival/convention (partially sponsored by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) is going to be the next Tarantino. Nevertheless, distributors weren't taking any chances. Many of the distribution deals were set in motion well before the festival's end. Kayo Hatta's dramatic Audience award winner Picture Bride, a sweet turn-of-the-century story of a Japanese émigré to Hawaii, had been nabbed last year by Miramax. Fine Line grabbed Douglas Keeve's documentary Audience winner, Unzipped, an entertaining look at fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. And Sony Pictures Classics bought screenplay winner Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion, a send-up of shoestring filmmaking that was inspired by DiCillo's experience with Brad Pitt on 1992's Sundance entry Johnny Suede. Yes, Sundance is now showing low-budget movies about low-budget movies.
Meanwhile, several studios had already snapped up notable foreign directors. Antonia Bird's intensely emotional Priest -- about a Liverpool padre tortured by a girl's confession of incest and by his affair with a local man -- was snagged by Miramax, and Bird has just finished directing Touchstone's Mad Love. New Zealander Lee Tamahori, whose Once Were Warriors viscerally depicts brutal domestic violence among the Maori, is shooting Mulholland Falls for MGM/ UA studio producer Richard Zanuck.
If anyone is this year's Tarantino, it's writer-director-actor Edward Burns, 27, who took home the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize for The Brothers McMullen, a comedy about three randy Irish-Catholic brothers. While working as an Entertainment Tonight production assistant, Burns shot the film on weekends at his parents' home on Long Island; he now has a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures, a new unit of Twentieth Century Fox. (Fox Searchlight also gets first crack at his follow-up New York comedy.) ''It's been the greatest week of my life,'' says Burns. Not only did Redford praise his movie, Burns reports, ''he hugged and kissed my mom.''
''Anything Edward Burns wants is laid out before him,'' says Banner Entertainment president Brian Swardstrom. ''Usually people who win the jury prize are odd and reclusive. This guy made a movie people love and he's great-looking and really accessible.''
But will McMullen make money? Winning the Grand Jury Prize has long been considered a box office hex; such past winners as Poison, Chameleon Street, In the Soup, and Public Access did little business in the real world. So even though one acquisitions exec calls McMullen ''the most commercial film to have won in years,'' that could turn out to be faint praise indeed. On the other hand, notes Sony Pictures Classics copresident Tom Bernard, ''a lot of the winners in the past didn't have a marketing machine working in conjunction with the award.'' Hey, that's progress.
But not every Sundance film is necessarily meant for a wide audience. Among the most talked-about films were some of the most violent. The underage odyssey Kids, picked up by Miramax before the festival, promises an all-out war with the MPAA ratings board over scenes of prepubescents shooting drugs and having sex. Targeted by Sony Pictures Classics, Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation, about three disaffected twentysomethings on a crime spree, features a decapitation and a snipped penis. In Gramercy's Shallow Grave, a sleeper hit in Britain, three Glasgow yuppies explore their dark sides when they decide to bury a corpse and keep a briefcase full of money. Then there's The Young Poisoner's Handbook, Benjamin Ross' satiric portrait of a young Brit amateur chemist who systematically poisons and then carefully records the revolting symptoms of his family and fellow workers. Some directors go for grosses, some go for gross.
Along with filmmakers, actors also benefit from the Sundance showcase. This year's standouts included husband-and-wife team Dermot Mulroney and Catherine Keener (Living in Oblivion), comedian Lee Evans (Funny Bones), Liv Tyler and Pruitt Taylor Vince (Heavy), Benecio Del Toro (The Usual Suspects), and Parker Posey (Party Girl), who got several studio offers before landing the female lead in Castle Rock's Waiting for Guffman. The more than 300 journalists at the festival found plenty of stories, ranging from TV heartthrob Jason Priestley, who displays his screen chops in Cold Blooded, to Maxine Bahns of The Brothers McMullen, Edward Burns' real-life girlfriend, who canceled her classical studies at the Sorbonne to focus on her new acting career.
Exposure at Sundance can even help well-known subjects of documentaries. Fine Line president Ruth Vitale has big plans for uninhibited fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, the star of Unzipped. ''I want to put Mizrahi on Letterman,'' says Vitale. At the other end of the spectrum sits reclusive underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, the focus of Terry Zwigoff's Grand Jury Prize-winning documentary Crumb, who plans to stay in France, hanging up on reporters' phone calls and wearing a baseball-cap-and-sport-jacket disguise. And in a category of his own is troubled former Beach Boy Brian Wilson, subject of music producer Don Was' revisionist documentary I Just Wasn't Made for These Times. In conjunction with the film, Wilson performed four songs before a crowd of 300 at a Sundance party. ''Don has brought my career to a turning point,'' Wilson said gratefully. ''The only way I can thank him is to sing the best I can. We're going to be bigger than Cher!''