There's a sign by the side of the road in front of Park City High School that reads ''Honk For Snow.'' And all week, cars loaded down with skis have zipped past that sign obeying its sad little plea. That's because each winter, this gingerbread town high in Utah's Wasatch Mountains survives on two economies -- skiing and the Sundance Film Festival.
As the sign suggests, the skiing this year has been kind of bleak. As for the movies... well, the first few days at Sundance looked equally grim, as a slew of the festival's earliest and most promising premieres left audiences colder than the phantom snowstorm that hasn't belted the town's empty black diamond trails.
But just like the weather, things can change here overnight. And as the first week at Sundance came to a close on Wednesday, moviegoers, who began looking like weary soldiers on the Bataan Death March were finally given hope.
Cinematic gems began popping up and sparkling in unlikely places. Dealmakers finally whipped out their cobwebby wallets. And the buzz -- which was beginning to feel like a sorely missed four-letter word -- finally started buzzing. Some of the mid-festival highlights:
•After showing his soft, chewy center in ''Possession'' last year, indie misanthrope Neil LaBute (who, by the way, was a shuttle-bus driver at Sundance in the mid-'80s) returned to nasty form with ''The Shape of Things'' -- a painful battle of the sexes starring Paul Rudd and Rachel Weisz that's as harsh as his earlier flicks ''In the Company of Men'' and ''Your Friends and Neighbors.''
•Meanwhile, ''American Splendor'' (which was financed by HBO) takes a different look at misanthropy, telling the sad-sack story of real-life comics legend Harvey Pekar. It's like a cross between the off-beat documentary ''Crumb'' and the candy-colored loser-chic of ''Ghost World,'' starring director Paul Giamatti as an angry, pent-up nerd whose unshowered stink almost wafts off of the screen.
•Sometimes the biggest surprises come in the tiniest packages. Sundance, which has never been a venue that catered to down-the-middle mainstream films (let's remember, this is the same festival that rejected ''My Big Fat Greek Wedding'' last year), proved once again that ''quirky'' can be a solid M.O. Take the case of ''The Station Agent.'' The festival catalog touts it as a flick about a dwarf obsessed with trains. Only at Sundance, right? Well, it turns out, audiences have been walking out of screenings all week calling it one of the most touching movies here. I even overheard one acquisitions exec predicting that it would be the breakout arthouse film of the year.
•After many of those same acquisitions folks walked out of the opening night's screening of Robert Downey Jr.'s ''The Singing Detective'' scratching their heads, unsure of what to make of its jigsaw narrative and impromptu song-and-dance interludes, this year's dealmaking has also finally kicked in. While most are cautious not to repeat the sin of overpaying for films like Miramax did for ''Tadpole'' last year, backroom brokering is brisk, albeit with smaller pricetags attached.
•William H. Macy's bad-luck Las Vegas love story ''The Cooler'' sold to Lion's Gate; Ryan Gosling and Kevin Spacey's murder melodrama ''The United States of Leland'' was picked up by Paramount Classics; Holly Hunter's high school girls-gone-wild cautionary tale ''Thirteen'' was grabbed by Fox Searchlight; while a few others like ''The Station Agent,'' screenwriter-turned-director Peter Hedges' Thanksgiving-themed Katie Holmes drama ''Pieces of April,'' and Campbell Scott's directorial debut ''Off the Map,'' a beautifully-shot reminiscence of a young girl growing up in rural New Mexico, starring Joan Allen and Sam Elliott, all seemed headed for sale in the next day or two, with just the dotting of i's and crossing of t's left.
•Still, moviegoers agreed that the most consistently solid films have been coming out of the festival's documentary categories. Some of the more talked about ones there cover subjects that run the gamut from the grisly inner-workings of the L.A. County coroner's office (''A Certain Kind of Death''); a family torn asunder by a horrible and tawdry secret (''Capturing the Friedmans''); a heartbreaking look back at the diverging paths taken by a close-knit group of friends who grew up together in Brighton Beach (''The Boys of 2nd Street Park''); the bullet-dodging life of a renowned war photojournalist (''Robert Capa: In Love and War''); a catty glimpse at Manhattan trust-fund kids (''Born Rich''); a biopic chronicling a legendary record producer who worked with everyone from Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin to Clapton and the Allmans (''Tom Dowd & The Language of Music''); and finally, ''Hoop Dreams'' director Steve James' ''Stevie,'' a personal and guilt-ridden reunion between the director and the troubled kid he once mentored who turned into an even-more troubled adult.
In other words, there's plenty of reason to be bullish about the upcoming year in independent film. Sure, Robert Redford's annual cinematic Shangri-la may not have exactly started off auspiciously. But it's ending with a strong kick. And if that weren't good enough news for the folks in Park City, well, I'm happy to report that Wednesday night's local newscast led with a story about a snowstorm that may be blowing into town in the next few days. All that honking may have paid off after all.