All eyes at the Sundance Film Festival used to be glued to one big premiere that would have opening night all to itself. Now the festival starts with enough choices to fill a small multiplex.
Robert Redford’s independent-film showcase kicked off Thursday night with two fictional tales, two documentaries and a collection of short movies, offering viewers a cross-section of the 11-day festival’s roughly 120 feature films and 80 shorts.
The idea partly is to avoid hanging the festival’s opening-night fortunes on one of Sundance’s star-studded premieres, whose casts this time include Demi Moore, Pierce Brosnan, Katie Holmes, Kevin Spacey and Tobey Maguire.
It’s also partly to jump right into the festival’s four main events — drama and documentary competitions for both US films and world productions.
"It was almost impossible to find a film that represented the entire program, and if you have one opening film, it’s so talked about, it’s the only thing happening and tends to be the lead story. I wanted the lead story to be a lot of films and a lot of subjects," said festival director John Cooper, who did away with the single opening-night premiere last year.
"Other festivals have to have the big celebrity opening and have a lot of foreign dignitaries parading around. Our feeling is, let’s just show a bunch of different films and get started."
The feature-length lineup for the first night: director Dee Rees’ urban teen drama "Pariah," whose executive producers include Spike Lee; Susanne Rostock’s "Sing Your Song," a documentary about singer and activist Harry Belafonte; John Michael McDonagh’s Irish crime romp "The Guard," with Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle; and "Project Nim," a documentary about a chimpanzee raised like a human child that was directed by James Marsh, whose 2008 film "Man on Wire" premiered at Sundance and went on to win the documentary Academy Award.
Also among Sundance’s lineup: Sam Levinson’s family drama "Another Happy Day," with Moore, Ellen Barkin and Kate Bosworth; J.C. Chandor’s finance thriller "Margin Call," featuring Spacey and Moore; Vera Farmiga’s directing debut with the faith-crisis tale "Higher Ground," in which she also stars; Morgan Neville’s "Troubadours," a documentary about James Taylor and Carole King; George Ratliff’s preacher satire "Salvation Boulevard, starring Brosnan, Jennifer Connelly and Ed Harris; and Dito Montiel’s crime thriller "The Son of No One," with Holmes, Channing Tatum and Al Pacino.
Kevin Smith, whose career took off after his debut film "Clerks" sold at Sundance in 1994, returns to the festival with a creative plan to find a theatrical distributor for his fundamentalist horror story "Red State," which features John Goodman and Melissa Leo. Smith has indicated he plans to auction off distribution rights during the film’s question-and-answer session with the audience after its premiere.
"I have a feeling he’s going to get whatever he wants," said Elizabeth Banks, who starred in Smith’s romantic comedy "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."
Banks stars in two Sundance premieres, Jacob Aaron Estes’ black comedy "The Details" with Maguire, and Jesse Peretz’s family romp "My Idiot Brother," featuring Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer.
Some critics say Sundance has become overrun by celebrities and marketing gimmicks that have nothing to do with independent film. But Banks said the festival’s main purpose is the same as when she first came there with 2001’s comedy "Wet Hot American Summer."
"I consider Sundance to be sort of the truest American film festival that we have, in that it is the place every young, startup filmmaker wants to go. That is still true," Banks said. "It’s a community of people who care about movies. Yes, there are some Hollywood types there, but they’re there to see interesting young filmmakers."
Actress and filmmaker Miranda July, whose directing debut "Me and You and Everyone We Know" won a special jury prize for originality at Sundance in 2005, returns with her quirky relationship tale "The Future."
She’s looking for a distributor, not prizes, this time, as her new film plays out of competition in the festival’s high-profile premieres category.
"It feels a little more business-y this time," July said. "It’s still quite special. But I kind of think when you’re in competition, you feel like the whole world revolves around you. I wasn’t even aware of the premieres section and that it had, like, most of the bigger movies. In some ways, it feels kind of nice not to be competing for prizes. The real prize is, really, does it work for an audience? This kind of allows you to just focus on that."
Morgan Spurlock, whose 2004 fast-food study "Super Size Me" won Sundance’s documentary directing prize and earned him an Oscar nomination, also is back with "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," a documentary about product placement in movies that was paid for by product placement in his movie.
Spurlock said he approached "literally everybody" about putting up cash to feature their products in the film, including McDonald’s, which he skewered in "Super Size Me" by eating nothing but the fast-food franchise’s food for 30 days. McDonald’s never called back, and most other companies declined, he said.
"Most people were scared. Most people were like, Listen, I like my job. No way I’m doing this,’" Spurlock said. "Ultimately, the businesses and companies that did come on to put products in the film were smart and realized they’d rather at least have a little bit of control over their destiny by being in the film."
Tobey Maguire, left, and Elizabeth Banks are shown in a scene from, "The Details." (AP Photo/Sundance Film Festival)