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Sundance Steps Lively

The Sundance Film Festival had studios clamoring to join the indies with 'Clerks' and 'Hoop Dreams'

A decade ago the birth of Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival was heralded by just 400 die-hard independent-film fans who showed up in Park City, Utah, to watch fare that included Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. This year the cellular phones alone took up more space, as Park City's Main Street was thronged with filmmakers, distributors, agents, lawyers, journalists, actors, and, quaint as it sounds, a few civilian moviegoers. Some years, the skies of Sundance churn with great gusts of hype (virtually all of last year's vaunted festival favorites flopped in their theatrical runs). But the promise of the next sex, lies and videotape keeps the faithful coming back -- this year, more than 6,000 of them. Said bemused actor Ian Hart, who plays young John Lennon in the rambunctious crowd pleaser Backbeat: ''I don't know what I'm doing here. I don't ski. I don't know who all these people are. And I can't get into any of the movies.''

Winners: In a field crowded with contenders aimed at Generation X, a riveting two-character talkathon about a middle-aged duo's first date took the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature. ''I was really sobbing,'' said juror Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging) of Tom Noonan's What Happened Was..., which also took a screenwriting trophy. ''I was appalled at myself for never having written anything so honest.''

Of the many movies focusing on dysfunctional families, one that went farther than the rest, writer- director David Russell's comedic mother-son incest tale Spanking the Monkey, captured the coveted Audience Award for best drama. But it was the documentary competition that yielded Sundance's most talked-about film. Shot over five years, the gripping, suspenseful three-hour Hoop Dreams (which won the Audience Award for documentaries) follows the high school basketball careers of two NBA aspirants from inner-city Chicago -- and had independents and major studios alike vying for distribution (and even remake) rights. ''Everyone in America should see this movie, the most sweeping social statement about the underclass in America and success in the '90s,'' exclaimed indie-film financier John Pierson.

Influences: Richard Linklater's Slacker, a 1992 Sundance entry, apparently inspired a rash of twentysomething moviemakers to triumph on microbudgets. Kevin Smith, 23, who sold his comic-book collection and maxed his credit cards to make the $27,000 Clerks, a riff on his life as a New Jersey convenience-store clerk, bonded with director Rose Troche, 29, who made the Chicago-set girl-meets-girl romance Go Fish for less than $100,000. ''There are no lesbians where I come from,'' he said cheerfully. ''But it's been cool to hang out together.''

Quentin Tarantino's bloody Reservoir Dogs, which burst on the scene at the '91 fest, proved just as seminal as Slacker, upping the ante for on-screen violence. Roger Avary's Killing Zoe, starring Eric Stoltz and French actress Julie Delpy, boasted Tarantino as executive producer, but its depiction of a vicious bank heist left audiences sharply divided. Acting awards went to Sean Nelson, 13, who plays a self-possessed ghetto kid pulling off a double-cross drug deal in Fresh, and to Alicia Witt, 18, and Renee Humphrey, 18, who go on a murder spree in Fun. The brutality of both movies, however, had audiences cringing. And after seeing Peter Greene -- portraying a tortured schizophrenic in Clean, Shaven -- tear back a fingernail, one filmgoer is said to have fainted.

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