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The 1996 Sundance Film Festival

”Shine” and ”Welcome to the Dollhouse” took the audiences by storm

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”The more snow, the better,” said Robert Redford, laughing as he surveyed Main Street in Park City, Utah, from the comfort of his new restaurant, Zoom. Some of the 9,000 visitors to the 1996 Sundance Film Festival may have disagreed: The five and a half feet of snow that fell throughout the 10-day festival made four-wheel-drive vehicles as valuable as hot independent movies. ”Maybe it’s perverse, but as long as the films get here, then I think a little inconvenience is okay,” said Redford. ”It brings the filmmakers and their audience closer together.” This year, that closeness yielded a record number of deals, as nearly a dozen filmmakers arrived in Utah with hope and left with distributors.

Conceived 17 years ago as a showcase for the kind of small film the major movie studios ignored, the Sundance festival (sponsored in part by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) has struggled to maintain its reputation as a home for maverick moviemaking even as it has become an event that’s attended by half of Hollywood. This year was no exception, as everyone from Eddie Vedder to Brooke Shields could be spotted on the circuit. But Sundance’s spotlight remained firmly on the films themselves. No director was anointed the Next Big Thing as Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) and Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs) had been crowned at festivals past. Indeed, the endearingly gawky Todd Solondz, 36, was overwhelmed when his painful comedy about an equally endearing and gawky 11-year-old girl, Welcome to the Dollhouse, captured the Grand Jury Prize for drama (the film will open this spring). As his somber mien melted into a grin, he said shyly, ”Getting this kind of attention is critical for a movie like mine — it’s tricky, because it’s a comedy, but a very unsettling one.”

Dollhouse typified this year’s crop of competitors in its small-scale, gentle approach, which eschewed the high-style violence of last year’s Tarantino-inspired entries in favor of emotional melodrama and humanistic character studies — many written by, directed by, or starring women. Filmgoers gave high marks to the unabashedly sentimental Care of the Spitfire Grill, about an ex-con (Alison Elliot) who transforms the life of a lonely Maine café owner (Ellen Burstyn). Big Night, codirected by actors Stanley Tucci (TV’s Murder One) and Campbell Scott (Dying Young), served up a tasty period piece about two Italian-American brothers struggling to keep a restaurant open. And Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern, the moving documentary that won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award, told the poignant story of a farm family trying to keep its creditors at bay.

Although a few Hollywood-backed productions — such as MGM’s AIDS comedy-drama It’s My Party and Gramercy’s Bound, a sexy piece of pulp about two gals versus the Mob — used Sundance as a launching pad, the festival was dominated by unknown filmmakers who quickly learned that when it comes to cutthroat competition, Hollywood has nothing on Utah.

The noisiest brawl was fought over Shine, the haunting story of an unstable Australian piano prodigy that won a rapturous standing ovation on Jan. 21, after which director Scott Hicks announced, ”It needs to get picked up.” A fierce bidding war began. Miramax cochairman Harvey Weinstein screened the film (which was shown out of competition) early Monday and instantly okayed an offer. ”I was totally blown away,” he says. ”Like My Left Foot, I knew this was perfect for us.” Rival distributors October, Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, and Fine Line Features joined the bidding, which by Monday night leapfrogged from $1.4 to $2.5 million.

Convinced they’d won, Miramax executives went looking for Jonathan Taplin, Shine‘s sales representative. But Fine Line president Ruth Vitale (who lost the Sundance hit Unzipped to Miramax last year) was with him in his condo, refusing to leave until she had closed the deal. When a furious Weinstein discovered Fine Line had won, he tracked down Taplin at the Mercato Mediterraneo restaurant and demanded, ”How could you f—ing do this?” The maitre d’ promptly escorted Weinstein out. Tuesday morning, Taplin called Weinstein ”a bully” and insisted he and Miramax had never finalized a deal.

By Thursday, Weinstein’s temper had cooled. At a face-saving press conference, he announced his ”happy ending”: While Fine Line would release Shine in North America, Miramax and Buena Vista International had jointly purchased eight key foreign territories. ”Welcome to my favorite restaurant,” he told the press at the scene of the crime. ”Hopefully, they won’t ask me to leave this time.”

”It’s great publicity,” grinned Redford. ”I just thought it was amusing to see two guys doing to each other what they’ve done to others.”

Just as hotly contested was Lee David Zlotoff’s tearjerker Care of the Spitfire Grill. Again, the losing buyer (Trimark Pictures) threatened a lawsuit, while the winner, Castle Rock, made headlines by spending a shockingly high $10 million for worldwide rights to the $6 million film. Cynics argued that figure was crazy, but, predicted Bound star Joe Pantoliano, ”it’s a female Forrest Gump!”

Despite the fact that for every Sundance breakout hit (like last year’s The Brothers McMullen) there are dozens of losers, several other films were snapped up before the festival’s end. Miramax grabbed Walking and Talking, New York filmmaker Nicole Holofcener’s witty relationship comedy. October scooped up Girls Town, an unflinching, semi-improvisational look at three high school friends. Sony Classics nabbed Lisa Krueger’s girls-on-the-lam comedy, Manny and Lo. And Orion Classics picked up the twentysomething comedy Ed’s Next Move, even as NBC invited its director, John Walsh, to explore a sitcom spin-off. And as soon as the documentary Troublesome Creek won its dual awards, codirector Steven Ascher reports, distributor interest heated up ”exponentially. I’m told it’s not a hard sell anymore.”

Sundance isn’t just a — it’s about adding a patina of cool to your career. John Travolta managed to mush into town to applaud his wife, Kelly Preston, who plays a pro-choice lesbian in Precious, an abortion comedy (yup, comedy). Brad Pitt applauded his girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow, at her drama Sydney. Kevin Bacon went one better by directing his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, in the Showtime-funded Losing Chase, in which she plays a mother’s helper who revitalizes an unhappy Helen Mirren. Hong Kong action hero Jackie Chan drew mobs at a midnight screening of his attempt at American stardom, Rumble in the Bronx; and Elle Macpherson, whose Sirens premiered at Sundance in 1994, brought her newest movie, If Lucy Fell, declaring ”Sundance has been a good-luck omen for me” — just before a waiter spilled red wine on her sheepskin jacket.

The festival also gave several filmmakers a chance to show that they had regained their focus: After an abortive Hollywood career and a long hiatus teaching English as a second language, Solondz dusted off his Dollhouse script to begin his comeback. And it took Alan Taylor, 31, who debuted at Sundance in 1991 with a popular short, five years to return with his assured first feature, the heist comedy Palookaville. Quipped Taylor, ”Now I’m getting calls again.”

Certainly, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing for Lili Taylor, who had three films on display and walked away with the festival’s only acting prize, for her commanding performance as Factory hanger-on Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol. Her flourishing, if underpaid, indie career is leading to mainstream jobs — she’s currently shooting Ron Howard’s Ransom with Mel Gibson. But before taking it, she had one demand: Says Taylor, ”I wouldn’t have done it if they didn’t let me off to go to Sundance.”

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