SUNDANCE OVERVIEW From Mike Fleming: Is Dealmaking Avalanche In The Forecast? Handicapping The High Priority Acquisitions

(Freelancer Sharon Swart is helping Deadline’s Sundance coverage.)

Sundance officially kicked off this evening in Park City with the festival’s first screenings of films, many with various rights available. Irish cop comedy The Guard has just started screening at the Egyptian Theatre, with buyers including Harvey Weinstein in the house. Other films showing tonight are the Harry Belafonte documentary Sing Your Song, documentary Project Nim (which HBO just picked up), U.S. competition drama Pariah, and midnight screening Silent House, a horror thriller from the filmmakers behind 2003’s beyond-scary Open Water.

Earlier at the Egyptian today, Sundance founder Robert Redford, Sundance Institute exec director Keri Putnam, and festival director John Cooper held their annual opening day press conference. Redford wanted to talk about the Sundance Institute, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary. “We usually focus on the festival,” Redford said in the conference’s opening remarks, but “I want to talk about why we are here… What’s our point.” He gave a quick recap of why he started the Institute and how the festival sprung from it five years later. Redford underlined its ongoing mission to support emerging artists with labs and workshops, as well as through the festival platform and several newer programs that will take indie films and filmmakers to wider audiences both in the U.S. and overseas.

But the conference’s Q&A session brought at least one cringe-worthy question from a broadcast journalist who asked, in light of Regis Philbin’s announcement this week and Larry King’s recent retirement, if Redford, who is in his 70s, was also headed for pasture. As Redford gallantly answered the question, Cooper jokingly pretended to be crawling off stage. “I have not thought about retirement,” Redford said, musing, “I’m going to die…” Redford quickly changed the subject to praising his staff, including Cooper, who came up through the Institute’s lab program 20 years ago.

Cooper, in his second year at the helm of the festival, said he felt “almost relaxed” this year. He addressed the challenges of having one less screening venue (the Racquet Club) in Park City this year by warning theaters would be packed. “Oddly it’s one of our biggest years… We’re already sold out,” he added. “It may be a little crowded on the streets.” Cooper scorned the “ambush marketers” that have sprung up around the festival in the last decade to promote their brands and hand out swag to celebrities. “I like to call them riff-raff,” he said, “I wish they could find a way to contribute to independent film and the arts in general.”

Putnam pointed to the recent Sundance deal with one of India’s leading film companies to promote independent Asian cinema in America. Officials at Redford’s Sundance Institute have joined forces with New Delhi’s Mahindra & Mahindra for the establishment of the Mumbai Mantra Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab, which shall become an annual event in India. As part of the new agreement, four filmmakers from around the world will receive a grant and be invited to attend the Sundance Film Festival for targeted industry meetings. And a few months ago, Sundance also created the Film Forward partnership with President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities to bring festival films to underserved audiences overseas.

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