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[video] Sundance Starts: What to Expect at the Indie Festival

PARK CITY, UTAH (TheStreet) -- The Sundance Film Festival starts Thursday in this tidy ski town atop the Wasatch Mountains where the locals seem genuinely thrilled by the prospect of thousands of pushy film industry types mostly from New York and Los Angeles descending on their normally placid surroundings. 

Maybe that's why Robert Redford decided to hold the gathering here: The people are downright friendly.

Redford is scheduled to open the festival with a press conference at the Egyptian Theater on Main Street where he'll likely be asked to defend the notion that the annual gathering still serves the best interests of independent filmmakers, or that independent film has much of a future at a time when the typical theatrical release doesn't extend further than a single weekend and the audience for indie films (read: older), gets most of its entertainment on Netflix (NFLX).

There are exceptions, of course, and Sundance is all about finding the breakout hit.

Last year, "Fruitvale Station" won over the crowds (without a big name!), and was promptly scooped up by the Weinstein Co., the largest of the so-called independent distributors, which may have lost that moniker following its recent production deal with Walt Disney (DIS)

While the movies, the director and the screen stars will get most of the attention over the next 10 days, the real action will be found among the jockeying and bartering among the distributors. The big Hollywood studios are making fewer movies these days, and their independent arms, which are really independent in name only, are following suit.

Fox Searchlight, which hit a home run with "12 Years a Slave," is certain to be a major buyer at the festival though it's likely that the indie arm of 21st Century Fox (FOX) will mirror Big Fox by buying fewer films than in year's past, and only then with movies that can also do well internationally. Fox, Universal, Time Warner (TWX) are global media companies that prefer films that can do as well in Peoria as they can in Calcutta or Lima. 

Stars or no stars: Does an indie need a recognizable name or two to succeed, and will a major indie -- Fox Searchlight, Sony Classics, Lionsgate's (LGF) Roadside Attraction or Universal's Focus Features -- buy the rights to a film that lacks star power? 

There are certainly no shortage of premieres that include a high-profile name, or sometimes two: Keira Knightly and Sam Rockwell in "Laggies," Michael Fassbender and Maggie Gyllenhaal in "Frank" and Elizabeth Banks in "Little Accidents." (Lionsgate has already purchased the rights to "A Most Wanted Man," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman).

What will Netflix do? The video-streaming provider has become the 800-pound elephant in the indie showroom. In the modern era, the theatrical release has been relegated to an appetizer, a weekend or maybe two to establish a film's bona fides before moving to VOD. If a film is fortune, as in the case of "Blackfish," it will win some time on cable-TV channel before moving to iTunes, or Hulu, or Amazon (AMZN), before eventually going to Netflix. ("Blackfish" signed domestically with Magnolia Pictures as well as CNN Films.)

The next breakout Hit, or the early buzz for a sleeper: "Whiplash," a teenage drummer in combat with his often cruel instructor, plays Thursday evening. "Wish I Was Here," the latest effort of Zach Braff, director of "Garden State," plays on Saturday and is another film that could be picked up early in the festival.

But breakout hits aside, the film business is changing as indie's traditional audiences continue to turn to episodic television series found on Time Warner's HBO or AMC Networks, and go to the theater less frequently. Those are two trends that have yet to run their course.

Onward with the festival.

-- Written by Leon Lazaroff in Park City, Utah.

Follow @LeonLazaroff

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