Photo: Mark Maziarz, Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau
PARK CITY, Utah -- One widely reported aspect of last year's Sundance Film Festival was the visit by Paris Hilton and the tirade it prompted from Robert Redford, Sundance's founder, about press coverage of her appearance.

But it all just added to the zany atmosphere on the hilly, snow-dusted streets of Park City.

Redford began this film festival in an attempt to shift the industry's focus away from Hollywood's commercialism.

In 1981, he and volunteers began screening quality films and bestowing awards on outstanding works.

To further support the mission, Redford established the nonprofit Sundance Institute to help foster the careers of budding writers and filmmakers.

It's hard to dispute Redford's conclusion that Hilton, when she briefly stole the spotlight by merely attending a nighttime party, was a distraction from the festival's good intentions.

Last year, I missed Paris Hilton -- thankfully -- and as I prepare for my third festival, the sole thing I'm dreading is the superficiality that can at times dampen the fun: the high-fashion consciousness, the air-kissing and inane meetings between "important" people and their fawning wannabes.

Celebrity sightings are an inevitable and usually unremarkable part of Sundance -- in fact, actors and directors often answer audience questions after screenings. (From what I've observed, hearing stars speak directly to an audience can forever alter one's impression of them, for better or worse.)

But for me, the true joy of Sundance lies in the bounty of exceptional movies. I experience the entire 10-day festival as a celebration of independent documentary and narrative films in a picturesque mountain setting.

In both 2005 and 2006, I watched countless short films and at least 30 feature-length movies, and I barely scratched the surface.

I also revel in the thought-provoking forums with industry leaders and the great concerts at the Music Cafe on Main Street.

After a premiere on Thursday night, this year's festival begins Friday, Jan. 19, and continues through Jan. 28. It will show 196 films, including 85 world premieres and 35 by first-time filmmakers. The films come from 37 countries.

Park City Guide

Not everybody comes to Sundance for the films.

Park City is also home to three outstanding resorts with nearly 9,000 acres of pristine terrain for skiing, snowboarding or snowshoeing -- The Canyons, Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort. Not surprisingly, the slopes at all these resorts are least crowded during Sundance.

The charm of Park City, a former silver-mining town, is enhanced by its numerous and colorful historic buildings clustered on a few blocks of Main Street, a great place to shop and dine. The town has more than 100 restaurants. Among my favorites are the high-end Southwestern fare at Chimayo and the burgers at the Wasatch Brew Pub, both on Main Street.

The festival and tiny Park City have grown up together, though accommodating the hordes during the event always remains a challenge.

Last year, more than 50,000 people attended -- but there are just 6,000 rooms available in the area. Room rates in Park City proper skyrocket during Sundance because large film companies gobble up blocks of hotel rooms far ahead of time.

The Stein Eriksen Lodge at the Deer Valley Resort is considered one Utah's finest (winter nightly rates, $725). Condominium rentals are another option, ranging from $100 to several thousand dollars per night -- try or for listings.

Most Sundance events and screenings are right in Park City. But if you can't find a room, an easy way to enjoy the festival is from nearby Salt Lake City, which has far more hotels and is just 30 miles to the west.

Nearly all the prominent festival films are also screened at three theaters in downtown Salt Lake City.

A smaller selection of Sundance films are shown in Ogden, 50 miles north of Salt Lake City, and at the rejuvenating Sundance Resort, also founded by Redford and located south of Park City.

Parking is always difficult in Park City, especially during Sundance. In fact, renting a car isn't advisable for a Park City visit. Taxi fare from the Salt Lake City International Airport runs about $50; Park City has a reliable public bus system, and the festival operates frequent and free shuttles between the seven festival venues.

Tickets, Please

More challenging than parking or finding a hotel, though, is securing tickets for screenings or forums. Individual tickets are $15 for advanced purchases; inquiries can be made at (435) 776-7878 or online.

Also, each day at 8 a.m., the festival releases day-of-show tickets, which are sold only at the central box offices in Park City and Salt Lake City. And because tickets can be exchanged for a $2 charge, ticket availability is constantly in flux.

If a certain movie is on your must-see list and you cannot find a ticket, each theater also operates a wait list.

Downtown Park City
Photo: Mark Maziarz, Park City Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau

Beginning two hours before a screening, the theater (not the box offices) distributes wait-list numbers. About 30 minutes before the screening, a line forms according to the numbers, and available seats are sold for $10 (cash only).

In anticipation of all this time outside, be prepared for winter conditions. Each year Park City receives an average of 143 inches of snow in town and 350 inches in the resorts.

But one need not worry about shivering outside in the Rocky Mountains -- many theaters have heated tents nearby. The shuttles run frequently, and most events are near each other; Park City itself is just two miles long.

And don't despair if you can't make it out for Sundance. The shorts, which I believe represent some of the most innovative filmmaking anywhere, are streamed online throughout the festival. Wherever you end up, sit back and enjoy the show.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Martin Stolz is a freelance writer living in Salt Lake City. He previously worked as a newspaper reporter in New York and California.

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