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There may be other venues for low-budget movies these days, but the Sundance Film Festival remains "the premiere showcase for independent film."

Leigh von der Esch, executive director of the Utah Film Commission, articulated that sentiment Thursday evening at the kickoff event of the Sundance Film Festival, and it was echoed in remarks by Robert Redford and Richard Linklater as they addressed overflow crowds attending the world premiere of Linklater's film "Before Sunrise."The film's stars, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, also helped introduce the film to the audience, which filled all three auditoriums of the Cineplex Odeon Crossroads Plaza Cinemas.

As they went from theater to theater, von der Esch introduced Redford, who said the notion that independent films are not accessible to mainstream audiences is a fallacy. "Independent film is, I think, in many ways more accessible to audiences, even though it's less formula, less calculated to reach the cash box.

"It's still very much more about our lives. And the voices and the visions behind them are the independent filmmakers themselves. That's where our real commitment is. The more it remains independent, the more specific and the more interesting it becomes.

"For audiences to know thatthere is much, much more out there in films than we've been given over the last several years - I think it's very important."

Linklater told the audience that having his film open the festival is "the biggest honor I've had as a filmmaker." Linklater's first movie, "Slacker," played in the competition at the 1991 Sundance festival.

"The profile of American filmmaking would be so much different if it wasn't for Sundance," Linklater added, "and I think I speak on behalf of the entire filmmaking community on that."

Earlier in the evening, Linlater, Hawke and Delpy spoke to reporters in a jam-packed press conference at the Salt Lake Art Center, discussing the film and their feelings about the festival.

Hawke said he's very proud of "Before Sunrise" but added that he had some initial trepidation. "Whenever you're doing a big, complicated thing, you say, `Well, I really wish I was doing a film about a guy and a girl talking to each other.'

"And then, this one kind of came about, and I realized what a terrifying aspect that was. And you only get that kind of opportunity in a blue moon - so I took it."

Delpy said her response to the screenplay was immediate. "I had never read a script that was so simple, and yet so intense and interesting at the same time. I loved it right away."

Hawke and Delpy were both at the festival a year ago and said they were glad to be back. Last year, Hawke was promoting the premiere of "Reality Bites," as well as a short film he directed, while Delpy accompanied the competition film "Killing Zoe."

Linklater said he hopes the film has universal themes. "I think everyone has had an experience at least similar to this, whether it's someone sitting next to you on a plane trip, a trip across the country, or just meeting a stranger - it's that kind of `intimate stranger' thing."

After the screening, the crowds trekked across the street to Abravanel Hall for the Opening Night Gala, as Salt Lake's movers and shakers mixed it up with Hollywood's elite. There was plenty of loud music, food and schmoozing.

It was the usual mix of those in formal wear and those who stayed with the blue-jeans-and-leather-jacket look. And just about everyone was on a portable phone at one time or another.

The festival begins in earnest Friday, as most events move to Park City for the next 10 days. There are also screenings at the Tower Theater and the Utah Film & Video Center. Phone 328-FILM (3456) for information.