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New York Post


Saturday,January 20,2001

By LOU LUMENICK PARK CITY, Utah - Facing threatened strikes by actors and directors, Hollywood is anticipating the biggest buying spree in years at Sundance Film Festival.As the festival gets into full swing this weekend in the Utah mountains, indie filmmakers - who usually face an uphill battle getting their works into theaters - are hoping for a mad rush of frenzied bidding wars as product-starved distributors try to find the next "The Blair Witch Project."

If the festival plays out as some experts predict, megaplex audiences will be feasting for months on edgy indie fare, some with major stars, as studios stock up on completed films in anticipation of a months-long labor dispute following the spring expiration of producers' contracts with the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America.

"Our expectations are pretty high, at least in part because of the pending strike," said Micah Green, an agent representing several high-profile, independently produced movies at the festival.

Green's company, Sloss Special Projects, will be premiering "The Business of Strangers," a cutting-edge drama about a female executive and her assistant that's taken on added heat in the past few days because it stars Julia Stiles, a young actress whose "Save the Last Dance for Me" opened last weekend with an impressive $27 million at the box office.

Amir Malin, CEO of Artisan Entertainment, a major indie distributor, says other films he'll be keeping tabs on are "Double Whammy," a comedy starring Denis Leary as an NYPD detective; "Donnie Darko," produced by and starring Drew Barrymore; and the animated "Waking Life," from director Richard Linklater.

"The list for many of us is similar," says Malin, who picked up "The Blair Witch Project" at Sundance for $1 million two years ago, before it created a sensation and sold $147 million worth of tickets.

But even a fantastic reception at Sundance, with its famously hip audiences, doesn't necessarily translate into box-office boffo. Just ask legendary Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, who paid $10 million for Sundance fave "Happy, Texas" two years ago, only to see it flop in general release.

"Sundance is movie lover's paradise," he told The Post. "That and another movie I adored and bought, 'The Castle,' worked great with audiences in Park City, but out in the real world, they just didn't play as well."

Weinstein, a Sundance fixture whose acquisition of "sex, lies and videotape" at the 1987 festival marked a turning point in the marketing of independent movies, sat out last year's event because of health problems, but will be back making his usual rounds in this mining town turned ski resort.

The festival is also serving as a launch pad for several films already acquired by the studios, such as Christine Lahti's engaging "My First Mister," starring Albert Brooks as a middle-aged clothing store owner who forges an unlikely relationship with a pierced, tatooed and heavily alienated teenager (Leelee Sobieski).

Lahti's film, warmly received at the festival's opening night in Salt Lake City, will be released this summer. Last night in Park City, "Caveman's Valentine" made its bow, with Samuel L. Jackson as a homeless musical genius who solves a murder mystery. It opens March 2.

Meanwhile, several alternative festivals are gearing up in the area.

Slamdance, the most prominent, apparently lost its opening-night attraction, "Brooklyn Babylon," pulled at the insistence of Artisan, its distributor.

Marc Levin, director of the hip-hop romance, was appealing to Artisan's Malin, who reportedly threatened to sue because the film was booked without the distributor's permission.