Who needs the luge? When it comes to cutthroat competition in Utah, the Olympics have nothing on the annual indie movie marathon where film making hopefuls go for the gold

Only a fool would underestimate the brute strength of a schoolgirl hell-bent on declaring her love to Brad Pitt. And yet there they were — dozens of red-carpet-hardened paparazzi flanking the entrance of Park City’s Eccles Theatre on the third night of the Sundance Film Festival — getting mauled by smitten teens screaming themselves hoarse and blocking out the veteran cameramen as if they were Shaq jostling for a rebound.

By the time Pitt and his wife, Jennifer Aniston, smiled and waved their way past the giddy mob and made it into the movie house, where they posed yet again with beret-clad festival pooh-bah Robert Redford before the premiere of Miguel Arteta’s quirky strip-mall comedy The Good Girl, this cozy snow globe of a ski town had transformed into something else entirely. Hollywood had officially annexed Utah…again.

Like Bill Murray hitting the snooze button in Groundhog Day, this metamorphosis from high-altitude serenity to bulb-popping mayhem repeats itself every year. And while Sundance 2002 (cosponsored in part by Entertainment Weekly) may have boasted a higher celeb quotient than recent years — what with such first-name-only stars as Ben and Matt, Russell and Nicole, Mariah and Benicio — the movies seemed to take a backseat. Sure, there were plenty of fine films. In fact, 14 movies finagled distribution deals during the festival—an all-time high. But few of them seem destined for the same kind of Oscar crossover success as last year’s festival breakouts In the Bedroom, Sexy Beast, and Memento. Of course, that’s missing the point of the whole Sundance circus.

It’s hard to get less indie than Robin Williams. And yet, every year, in addition to all the first-time filmmakers who flood Sundance like a swarm of black-clad locusts, at least one big-name actor makes the pilgrimage to Park City in an attempt to get back to basics and perhaps grab a little street cred. This year, it was Williams, whose schmaltz-free turn as a creepy stalker in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo made it easier to forget Patch Adams. Williams was everywhere—cycloning around town like the Tasmanian Devil on crank. ”I’m having a blast. I was in Cannes a few years ago and it was totally different. When audiences there hate a film they throw lit cigarettes at the screen,” he said, breaking into a Pepe Le Pew accent, ”’F — – your happy movie!’ But here, people are out at midnight watching movies, passing out fliers, and handing out tapes of their short films like perverts passing out smut. It’s inspiring.”

It’s also part of Sundance’s madhouse charm. On Park City’s Main Street — a steep stretch of quaint shops where the oxygen is scarce and the film fanatics let their freak flags fly — Hollywood wannabes moonlight as town-crying pamphleteers: There was the nonchalant bearded-lady star of By Hook or by Crook, the perma-tanned playboy producer Robert Evans in town with his British butler supporting his biopic documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, and the ubiquitous Project Greenlight posse looking a little relieved that their reality-TV experiment Stolen Summer didn’t get the Cannes lit-cigarette treatment (see sidebar). Joking about the Main Street mayhem, Run Ronnie Run! star Bob Odenkirk cracked: ”You’ve got people who are like, ‘I made an eight-minute film, it’s mostly on DV, partly I drew it. Come see it!’ God bless all these people for working so hard, but is it going to work?” Added his costar David Cross about all the hucksters in chicken costumes and the like, ”I’ll give a tip to anyone who comes to the festival to promote their small independent production: Don’t wear a wacky outfit while you’re passing s — – out because that’s going to make me run to the other side of the street.”