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The Long and Short of 'Spirit'

January 26, 1997|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

PARK CITY, Utah — Sundance success stories, Hollywood success stories, they're a glut on the market. But there's never been one quite like the saga that surrounds "The Spirit of Christmas," a five-minute animated short on which hangs a million-dollar tale.

For openers, though the shorts situation is highly competitive, with 60 selected from 1,200 submitted, "Spirit" is here because the festival called filmmakers Trey Parker and Matt Stone and asked if it could be shown. That's because bootleg tapes of this anarchic, outrageous, obscenely funny film, which features a fierce battle between Jesus and Santa Claus, have gone all around Hollywood and the world, making this the hottest home screening item in memory.

It started when a Fox executive they'd met through contacts made at Sundance gave them $2,000 to make a video he could send as a Christmas card. "I did the animation using construction paper cutouts," Parker says, "and we both improvised the dialogue, screaming obscenities at each other in my basement while my mom was baking fudge upstairs. It cost $750 and we pocketed the rest."

The exec sent the video out at Christmas 1995 to 80 people, who promptly made it their card as well. And so on. "By February, we were hearing about it from every state, friends of friends in New York were telling us 'Metallica saw your video and they loved it.' We'd never bothered to put our name on it, so the whole thing came full circle when a friend from Ohio sent us a copy and said, 'You've got to see this.' "

Though their career as live-action filmmakers had already started (their "Cannibal the Musical" was a Sundance midnight show that was picked up by Troma), this short put them into orbit. "First everyone was trying to figure out who we were, and then there was like a little bidding war going on, studios offering three-picture deals." The team sold Comedy Central a series called "South Park," based on the shopping mall world "Christmas" takes place in, and they're about to go into production with a full-length animated feature. The budget: $1.5 million. "Pretty amazing," Parker says, and who's going to argue?

*

SLUMMING: First came Sundance. Then came an upstart festival called Slamdance. And now that Slamdance is established enough to have corporate sponsors, this year saw the appearance of a third local film festival, "Slumdance." No, this is not a joke. At least not completely.

Set up in a 6,000-square-foot basement that was once a Mrs. Fields cookie factory, Slumdance was started by a group of hang-loose filmmakers who call themselves Slumdance Programming Vagrants and had 150 submissions before opening night. As the headline on their press release nicely put it, "Slumdance Stuns Movie World by Existing."

The Slumdance gang inventively outfitted the basement like a mock slum. You enter through a mission area that serves free soup, walk past Tent City, individual video screening areas designed like hobo housing and enter the Lounge, the main screening area with space for 35-mm projectors, couches and sleeping bags. Around the corner and behind a curtain is a set of concrete steps going nowhere in particular. "This," says Slumdance Vagrant Brian Flemming with a grand flourish, "is the Stairway to Acquisitions."

You get the idea.

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