Sundance Entries An Eclectic Mix

Some entries in the Sundance Film Festival may sound familiar.

There's a movie about a middle-aged man's relationship with a teen-age girl, but it's not "American Beauty." There's a war story about cracking the German U-boat code, only it's not "U-571." There's a tale of a rock journalist profiling a difficult subject, and it's not "Almost Famous." And there's Samuel L. Jackson as a trash-talking New Yorker investigating a murder, but his name's not John Shaft.

This year's lineup at Sundance, the industry's premiere showcase for independent film, reflects a growing convergence between studio pictures and shoestring moviemaking.

Just as hits such as "Pulp Fiction" taught studios that indie fare could turn a big buck, so independent filmmakers have become less snooty, branching beyond the artsy and edgy to incorporate more commercial, mainstream elements in their movies.

"We're seeing a different range of influences. It's not just Bergman and Fellini and Kurosawa," said festival co-director Geoffrey Gilmore. "The work we have in the festival is all over the place. If you look at the films, they seem to be coming from so many different directions."

The 11-day festival opens Thursday with director Christine Lahti's "My First Mister," starring Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski in an unusual romance about an uptight store manager and a teen-age clerk.

In the wake of "U-571" comes "Enigma," director Michael Apted's spy caper about Allied efforts to crack the U-boat code. Kate Winslet and Dougray Scott star.

Jackson stars as a bellowing, mentally unbalanced man who lives in a cave in New York City and sets out to solve a murder when a body turns up outside his home in "The Caveman's Valentine."

Studio and independent flicks have become harder to differentiate.

DreamWorks, Steven Spielberg's blockbuster-minded studio, made "American Beauty," which had a relatively modest budget and had the risque feel of an indie feature.

The current hit "Traffic" started as a big-studio film that was dropped by 20th Century Fox and rescued by independent distributor USA Films. The finished product was a hybrid, with big-name talent (Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones) but a smaller budget and a gritty feel more akin to the art house than the mall megaplex.

"For the past eight or nine years, there's been a blurring of how we would define independent films and major studio films," said Amir Malin, president of Artisan Entertainment, which picked up "The Blair Witch Project" at Sundance two years ago.

Like "Almost Famous," director Allison Anders' Sundance entry "Things Behind the Sun" follows a music writer on a rock assignment.

Anders said the indie-film world had veered into overdone territory a few years back, "cliched genre stuff like white, middle-class boys making films about gangsters, things they don't anything about, or soft date movies about twentysomethings, nameless idiots and their dating problems."

Now, there's healthy eclecticism among the stories independent filmmakers are drawn to, Anders said.

Through cable television, home video and the Internet, today's aspiring movie makers are exposed to wider influences, from MTV and video games to obscure films on the Sundance or Independent Film channels.

"They've all seen such a wide variety of work," said Elizabeth Daley, dean of the University of Southern California cinema and television school. "Think about what it meant to live in a small town in Indiana 15 years ago, where you weren't able to see a lot. Now, everywhere you turn, there's a much wider vocabulary of film language available."

Digital technology also opens doors for small-budget filmmakers, who can shoot cheaper and more efficiently with digital cameras than they could on celluloid. This year, 23 of Sundance's 107 feature-length films were shot digitally, about double last year's number.

Computerized images bring new options, as well. The Sundance entry "Donnie Darko," a tale of a delusional teen-ager that co-stars Drew Barrymore, features elaborate special effects, a rarity for independent films because of the cost. Another film, "Waking Life" by writer-director Richard Linklater, paints digital animation over real imagery.

"Anybody and everybody now makes up their own definition of what is an independent film," said Tom Ortenberg, co-president of Lions Gate, which is premiering its fashion satire "Perfume" at Sundance. "Is it based on budget, non-studio support, the person making it having indie credibility? I don't think there is a good definition of what is an independent film these days."