Chilly reception or standing ovation? Filmmakers once again flock to Sundance for a shot at the spotlight.

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Just a week earlier, it had been, shall we say, a source of concern. After all, the synopsis in the festival catalog read thus: ”Born with dwarfism, Fin has responded to unsolicited attention by choosing a life of separation and spends his time alone with his one passion — trains.” Likely translation: ”A self-serious and desperately quirky bore that will make us want to set ourselves on fire — with clove cigarettes, since we’re being all indie.” The alarm was unjustified. The Station Agent debuted the first Saturday of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival in the cozy Park City Library Center — and won a standing ovation. As word bounced from cell phone to cell phone, the low-budget film snowballed into the festival’s trade-you-for-my-Prada-shoes ticket. By the following Saturday, it had garnered the Dramatic Audience Award and sold to Miramax for a snug $1.5 million.

If 2001 was the Bumper Crop of Oscar Bait (Memento, In the Bedroom), and 2002 the Year of the Deal (a record 14 films found distribution during that festival), 2003 might be dubbed the Return to Moderation, in which a few pleasant surprises sold for fair sums and even the weather in Park City was none too extreme.

This year, it seems, buyers didn’t want to get Tadpoled, a term referring to Miramax’s festival-fevered $5 million acquisition of last year’s buzz film, which grossed only $2.9 million when it opened at normal altitudes. During the 11 days of Sundance, which ended Jan. 26, there were bidding skirmishes but no wars, and only five films left with distributors. Lions Gate whipped out the checkbook first, plopping down $1.5 million for the William H. Macy Las Vegas love story The Cooler. Paramount Classics forked over at least $2 million for Kevin Spacey’s United States of Leland, about an introspective teen (Ryan Gosling) who murders a retarded boy. Fox Searchlight ponied up almost $2 million for Thirteen (see sidebar), a gulp-worthy drama about two image-obsessed girls who snort drugs, steal money, and do things with boys that no 13-year-old should ever, ever do. The film gave the festival (which EW cosponsors) its first breakout darling, Nikki Reed, now 14, who starred in and cowrote the movie — and whose remarkable toothsomeness prompted director Catherine Hardwicke to remind male Sundancers that she was ”jailbait.”

The biggest cash went for Pieces of April, a family dramedy by first-time director Peter Hedges starring Katie Holmes and Patricia Clarkson, who appeared in four Sundance films and took home an acting prize (see sidebar). The movie’s reception was so glowing it made Hedges, best known for coadapting About a Boy, weep during his post-screening Q&A. ”I was a fountain,” he laughs. ”It’s so silly, but it’s just worked out better than I ever imagined. You get maybe one of those in your life.” The Thanksgiving-themed movie sold to UA for $3.5 million (though it was snubbed in the awards ceremony).

Three mil ain’t bad for a film shot in three weeks, but it’s a far cry from the heady days of 1999, when Happy, Texas reportedly scored upwards of $10 million. In fact, Bookies, the sophomore effort of Happy helmer Mark Illsley, was still homeless when dealmakers fled Park City. In a tough table-turner, onetime golden boy Illsley couldn’t even get in to see April, the lines were so long. ”I was so jealous of this filmmaker getting that experience for the first time, which I’ll never have again,” he says.

American Splendor

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  • 101 minutes
  • Shari Springer Berman
  • Robert Pulcini