PARK CITY, Utah - Opening night will mark some firsts for the Sundance Film Festival, the nation's top showcase for independent movies.
For the first time, the curtain rises Thursday with the premiere film screening in the festival's hometown, the ski resort of Park City, rather than in nearby Salt Lake City, where the opening-night movie has traditionally played.
For the first time, this year's opening flick is a documentary, the surfing chronicle "Riding Giants," instead of a fictional film.
And for the first time, the 11-day festival will feature a film starring its top man, Robert Redford, who plays a kidnapped businessman in "The Clearing," which also features Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe. Redford's Sundance Institute oversees the festival.
Redford had been reluctant to have "The Clearing" at Sundance, worrying it might present a conflict of interest, said Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance festival director.
"What he did with `The Clearing' was act in a small, low-budget film for the first time in many years," Gilmore said. "I got a chance to see it, thought it was absolutely right for Sundance, then had to convince him it was something good for the film, good for him and good for the festival."
Other prominent offerings among Sundance's 137 feature films are Julianne Moore and Matthew Broderick's "Marie and Bruce," a tale of a disintegrating relationship; "The Butterfly Effect," with Ashton Kutcher as a man who learns he can undo the past; "Iron Jawed Angels," starring Hilary Swank and Frances O'Connor as leaders of the women's suffrage movement in 1912; DMX and David Arquette's "Never Die Alone," about a drug dealer's return to his home turf; "The Woodsman," with Kevin Bacon as a child molester trying to rebuild his life after prison; and the Martin Luther King Jr. documentary "Citizen King."
The opening-night film was moved to Park City because it's the festival headquarters, where most of the movies screen and other events take place, said Gilmore. Many festival films will continue to screen in Salt Lake City.
The surfing angle of "Riding Giants" nicely complements the sensibilities of Park City's ski industry and the many film fans who take time out to hit the slopes during the festival, Gilmore said.
"Riding Giants" is directed by Stacy Peralta, who made "Dogtown and Z-Boys," a skateboarding documentary that was a Sundance hit in 2001.
"For the Park City crowd, this is the ideal way to open the festival," Gilmore said. "That surf culture is something I felt really spoke to the Park City community. It's a movie that epitomizes what independent film is all about. Surfers riding these big waves, taking risks without the hope of real rewards, the same as independent film is all about risk-taking without hope of real rewards. Metaphorically, it's perfect."
With hits and acclaimed films such as "In the Bedroom," "The Brothers McMullen," "Clerks" and "The Blair Witch Project" coming out of past Sundance festivals, the event has grown into a hybrid for indie filmmakers, celebrity watchers and Hollywood dealmakers.
Small distributors and boutique subsidiaries for major studios showcase upcoming films, trotting out stars for interviews and question-and-answer sessions with audiences.
While Sundance's focus remains on American independent film, the lineup has grown more eclectic as the festival expanded its world-cinema slate and added an international documentary program.
Distributor ThinkFilm is showcasing "Bright Young Things," a British movie the company had not considered a likely Sundance flick after picking it up at last fall's Toronto International Film Festival. The directing debut of actor Stephen Fry, "Bright Young Things" is based on an Evelyn Waugh novel about hedonistic Brits living the high life just before World War II.
"`Bright Young Things' is so champagne, whereas Sundance is so beer," said Mark Urman, ThinkFilm head of distribution. "We didn't feel it was the sort of film that might get attention at Sundance. It isn't about new, young, edgy American things.
"Having said that, it is a world-class, ultra-prestigious film festival that's captured the imagination of the world, so what better to place to showcase it?"
Distributors also scout Sundance for the next Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith and flesh out their schedules with film acquisitions. Recent films bought at Sundance include "You Can Count on Me," "In the Bedroom," last year's audience award winner "The Station Agent" and "Blair Witch," the one megahit Sundance has produced.
With the family drama "The Best Thief in the World," one of 16 films competing for Sundance's top dramatic prize, writer-director Jacob Kornbluth has the best of both worlds in a crowded indie market where most filmmakers never know if their movies will see the light of day outside the festival circuit.
The film was financed by Showtime, where it will eventually air. But Kornbluth also has the opportunity to land it with a distributor that will put the film in theaters before its TV debut.
"It is a pretty good spot to be in," said Kornbluth, whose previous Sundance entry was the comedy "Haiku Tunnel," co-directed with his brother, Josh. "You feel you have all the upside of a potential theatrical release without that sinking feeling that maybe nobody will ever see the film."