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Sundance: The early bird. . . .

It’s only a week early, but the festival became a ‘Herculean task’

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PARK CITY — The lesson to be learned from the many months of planning that went into this year's Sundance Film Festival: always have a contingency plan.

Festival officials say that planning the nearly two-week annual event — the premier showcase for independently produced cinema in the United States — is never easy. But it's never been this hard, either.

First, they had to move the festival up a week to avoid competing with the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games for hotel rooms and other facilities. (Athletes competing in the Games and many others are expected to arrive in Utah during the last couple of weeks in January, when Sundance is normally ongoing.)

And while a week might not sound like that big a change, that seemingly inconsequential seven-day period has caused no end of headaches for Sundance officials.

"I can say that this is definitely the most challenging experience we've had planning this festival," said Nicole Guillemet, the festival's co-director. "Losing that extra week was huge, especially when the festival comes just after the start of the new year."

For instance, it's been difficult for Sundance officials to stay in contact with filmmakers whose works are being shown in the festival. Many of them left their respective hometowns for Christmas and New Year's holidays and are only now beginning to return. "We like to be in touch with our filmmakers as much as we can, just in case there are any problems," Guillemet said. "But that was not possible this year."

Also, though the festival has always been security-minded, in the wake of Sept. 11 additional security procedures will be implemented — especially for several stars of high-profile films in the festival.

Besides Sundance honcho Robert Redford, who is expected to be in attendance for several festival events, other stars expected to at least make appearances during the festival are Nicole Kidman (star of "Birthday Girl"), Ben Affleck and Matt Damon (producers of "Stolen Summer") and Robin Williams (star of "One-Hour Photo").

Other probable attendees include John Malkovich, who directed the Sundance selection "The Dancer Upstairs"; Jodie Foster, star and co-producer of "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys"; Mariah Carey and Mira Sorvino, stars of "Wise Girls"; and Christina Ricci, who appears in both "Pumpkin" and "The Laramie Project."

Guillemet promised that any new security procedures would not be "too intrusive." "If you have been in an airport, this certainly will not be any worse than that process," she said. "And I certainly do not believe that they will ruin anyone's festival experience."

Festival programmers also found themselves under the gun. According to Geoff Gilmore, the festival co-director and director of programming, the programmers were given the usual amount of time to view submissions from hopeful filmmakers. However, Gilmore said that when more than 3,000 submissions showed up, "it makes the viewing and selection process an almost Herculean task, especially when we try to make sure that each film is seen by at least two of our programmers."

But giving the programming committee that much time also led to one of the biggest changes in the festival. Lacking an extra week, the festival was unable to print its catalog of films — because the programmers' capsulized "reviews" could not be ready in time. Instead, the festival has created an online film guide, complete with film capsules.

"We admit that this is not a perfect system," Guillemet said. "In fact, I would expect that it came as a rather unwelcome surprise to some. But it was necessitated by circumstances beyond our control."

Still, both Gilmore and Guillemet said there were some things that made this year's festival planning process easier. Foremost among these is a new partnership with Park City — the festival signed a multiyear agreement with the city last year, which will keep the event there for the foreseeable future. "That eliminated one big worry," Guillemet said, laughing as she added, "and besides, this is the last time we're having the festival this early."

The 2002 Sundance Film Festival began with Thursday night's opening-night festivities and continues through Jan. 20 with screenings in a variety of locations in Park City and Salt Lake City, as well as in the Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden and the Sundance resort in Provo Canyon.

In addition to film screenings, the festival also includes panel discussions, the Gen-Y Studio, the House of Docs, the Music Cafe and the Piper-Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision (this year's recipient is Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro).

Tickets for many screenings and events are still on sale. Call 521-2525 or 1-435-649-4333 for more information. The online film guide is available at the official festival Web site (look under "Sundance Film Festival" at www.sundance.org.

E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com