PARK CITY, Utah -- The culmination of the Sundance Institute's year-round work developing fresh perspectives in drama and documentary films is taking over Park City, Utah, for the next 11 days.
Among themes filmmakers are exploring this year: Sexuality, identity, race and gun violence.
Both a showcase and marketplace for independent film, the Sundance Film Festival draws emerging and established artists from around the world seeking a wider audience for their work, and distributors hungry for fresh content. HBO and Netflix have already acquired films making their world premieres in Park City this week.
"Our competition is as eclectic and diverse as it ever is," said festival director John Cooper. Of 12,700 submissions, 123 features will play at the festival, which starts Thursday and continues through January 31. "We're drawn to originality. We're drawn to excellence. We're drawn to different ways of storytelling."
Love stories are also a trend this year, said programming director Trevor Groth.
"They're not traditional love stories, but that is what they are at their core," he said. "It was really interesting to see that filmmakers finding fresh ways of getting into ideas and stories that have been told countless times, but they're still finding fresh perspectives and angles to tell them."
While movies are the main event, the spirit and celebrity of Sundance extends throughout Park City with exclusive parties and other starry events, and even a whole other film festival. Here's a look at the most anticipated movies at Sundance and other festival-related happenings:
- DRAMAS: Several directors who have become Sundance regulars are back with premieres of their latest films, including Todd Solondz, Ira Sachs and Kelly Reichardt.
Other notable premieres include "Indignation," a coming-of-age story set in the early 1950s that marks the feature directorial debut of Oscar-nominated screenwriter James Schamus, former chief of Focus Features; "Sing Street," the latest musical endeavor from John Carney ("Once"); and "Mr. Pig," from co-writer and director Diego Luna, which stars Danny Glover as a man who takes a road trip with his giant pig.
Some of the love stories in the dramatic competition are "Southside With You," a take on Barack and Michelle Obama's first date; "Morris from America," about an African-American kid coming of age in Germany; and "Lovesong," starring Riley Keough and Jena Malone as friends who discover a new intimacy in their relationship.
Other films include "Swiss Army Man," starring Daniel Radcliffe as a dead body discovered by Paul Dano; "Goat," an exploration of fraternity hazing and violence starring Nick Jonas and Ben Schnetzer; and writer-director Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation," based on the true story of slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner.
- DOCUMENTARIES: The slate of documentary premieres is artist-centric, with portraits of Norman Lear, Frank Zappa, Robert Mapplethorpe, Mike Nichols and Maya Angelou in the mix, along with Spike Lee's anticipated documentary, "Michael Jackson's Journey From Motown to 'Off the Wall.'"
The roster of competition films is more varied, with such titles as "Jim: The James Foley Story," about the young war correspondent murdered by ISIS; "Newtown," which delves into parents' grief after the Sandy Hook massacre; "Suited," which counts Lena Dunham as a producer and spotlights tailors who specialize in making clothing for transgender bodies; and "Kiki," about the culture of underground dance battles in New York City.
- OSCAR BUZZ: With some Hollywood A-listers calling for a boycott of the Academy Awards because of its all-white slate of acting nominees, diversity is bound to be a hot topic among stars and filmmakers at the fest.
- SLAMDANCE: Established in 1995 by filmmakers whose work didn't make the cut at Sundance, the Slamdance Film Festival has been a scrappy tag-along ever since.
"We're friendly neighbors," Cooper said.
"The fact that they're still around after 20-plus years speaks to the fact that there's room for them to be championing these films," Groth added.
Held during Sundance, from Jan. 22 to 28, Slamdance presents narrative and documentary features in competition and special screenings. One featured film is "Director's Cut," written by magician and TV personality Penn Jillette.
- BIG STARS: Star sightings are common in Park City throughout the 11-day festival, but especially during the first weekend. Besides Lee, Radcliffe, Dano and Dunham (also a Sundance judge this year), Danny DeVito, Don Cheadle, Viggo Mortensen, Greta Gerwig, Chelsea Handler, John Krasinski, Gabrielle Union, and Kevin Smith will all be in town.
- PARTY PLACES: Party places abound during the festival, as Main Street storefronts are transformed into temporary lounges and hangouts. Hosts include: Eddie Bauer, Kickstarter, Variety & Fandango, and CNN, which boasts its own coffee bar. Automaker Kia will host a "supper suite" with The Church Key restaurant, serving private dinners to celebrity casts of Sundance films.