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With Sundance 2009, Expect Less Money and Fewer Celebs, but More Heart

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It’s too early for buzz on specific titles, but there is one thing we can say about the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, which will be held January 15 to 25: The event will be a pared-down affair, and significantly so.

The ongoing financial crisis means everybody cut back on their budgets; although the number of films submitted to the festival increased this year, the US submissions were down. (The full brunt will probably be felt with next year’s submissions.) The belt-tightening will likely affect corporate spending at the festival as well. Variety recently covered the vanishing tradition of “gifting suites” in Hollywood — turns out blowing giant wads of cash on the slim possibility that a celebrity might wind up in a photo with your product isn’t the best way to spend the company’s dollar.

There’s also the impending boycott of businesses associated with supporting California’s Proposition 8. For its part, the festival is trying to navigate the controversy by making sure no movie shows exclusively at the Holiday Village theater in Park City, which is owned by a chain whose chief executive was a big Prop 8 backer. That may mitigate matters, but thanks to the Mormon Church’s support for the gay marriage ban, there’s a lot of creative community ill will aimed at Utah and many festival regulars will no doubt feel this is the year to stay home.

But there may be a silver lining in all this.

IndieWIRE editor and Sundance veteran Eugene Hernandez recently suggested
this could mean “we’ll see a greater focus on the films, rather than
the party and celebrity scene.” That will no doubt be helped by the
fact that the lineup features fewer star-studded premiere titles this
year.

So what do the films look like? Fest director Geoff Gilmore promises
that moviegoers will be surprised: “The range of emotions evoked by the
films is going to be greater than in the past,” he told the New York Times, singling out The Greatest,
a film about the loss of a teenage son, starring Pierce Brosnan and
Susan Sarandon, as a “three-hankie, if not more” picture, adding that
he was also left in tears by Push, Lee Daniels’s movieabout an abused girl in New York’s Harlem.

Even the documentary slate seems to err on the personal side: At
least three of the movies were actually made by the subject matters’
family members or descendants: Boy Interrupted, about a mentally ill young man and directed by his mother; William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, directed by the legendary civil rights attorney’s daughters; and The General (El General), partly about a revolutionary Mexican President, made by his great-granddaughter. My Architect, what have you wrought?

So: Fewer celebrities, fewer media outlets, an impending boycott, a
collapsing world economy, and a freaked-out film industry. If this
year’s crop of Sundance selections do indeed reflect a shift from
matters of the head to matters of the heart, it sounds like they
couldn’t have come at a better time.

Click here to see the slate of movies in competition.

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