Sundance Set To Shine

SUndance Festival
For the past 22 years, this backcountry ski resort town has served as the center of the independent - and not so independent - film world for ten days in January.

The Sundance Film Festival, beginning Thursday and running through Jan. 26, hasn't always been the star-studded party it's become.

Rick Anderson, owner of The Eating Establishment, a restaurant nestled for 30 years among the quaint shops lining the sloping Main Street at the foot of the Wasatch mountains, remembers when only a few film types dressed in dark duds would dot the tables at his restaurant.

"You used to see people show up without winter coats, without winter boots," Anderson said.

Now, A-listers like Al Pacino, Billy Bob Thornton and Holly Hunter - each of whom are likely to attend this year's festival - know what to wear in Park City in January.

Anderson's eatery has hosted dozens of famous faces during Sundance over the years. A quick survey of longtime wait-staff brings up names like Julianne Moore, Michael Stipe, Nick Nolte and Daryl Hannah.

Such sightings at any other time of the year would cause a stir in tiny Park City. But during Sundance, the town of about 7,300 people - which shares the festival with nearby Salt Lake City, Ogden, and the Sundance Ski Resort - nearly triples and becomes a mini-Hollywood.

More than 20,000 actors, filmmakers and cinema fans will converge on the region for screenings, panel discussions and parties before the festival peaks with an awards ceremony Jan. 25.

Some 125 feature-length films are set, while short films and other programs will push the number of works to well above 200.

On Friday, Park City will host two big premieres: "People I Know," a mystery with Pacino, Tea Leoni, Kim Basinger and Ryan O'Neal; and "The Singing Detective," staring Robert Downey Jr. and Robin Wright Penn.

The festival officially begins Thursday night in Salt Lake City with "Levity," directed by Ed Solomon and starring Billy Bob Thornton as a murder convict seeking redemption after 19 years in prison. The film also features Morgan Freeman, Kirsten Dunst and Hunter.

Marquee stars have stretched Sundance's growth from a cult retreat for small-budget films to a Cannes-style playground for big-name celebrities.

Before cell phones and entourages, there were people like Jill Miller, the managing director of the Sundance Institute who's worked the festival on and off since 1984.

"I do remember screenings where we'd go out on the street and hand out tickets and ask people to come in and watch the movie," Miller said.

In 1985 the festival filled 15,750 seats before a handful of screens. Last year, 144,525 seats were filled across the numerous locations along the Wasatch.

The Sundance Institute, which employs a year-round staff of 55 at its offices in Salt Lake City, adds more than 150 extra workers between September and March to prepare for the festival. Another 11,000 volunteers take tickets, direct traffic and perform other chores in exchange for free movies and major-league elbow-rubbing.

"We have volunteers who have been here since 1985. They're taking their vacations to come out here and they're going home exhausted," Miller said, "but they keep coming back."