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SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

As the projector counts down

Just because their films are in the festival doesn't mean they're finished: Some are still working on them.

January 15, 2008|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

For many of the sleep-deprived, debt-saddled filmmakers trekking to the Sundance Film Festival this week, gaining acceptance to the world's most competitive indie market was the easy part. It's finishing their films in time that will take nothing short of a miracle.

More than 45,000 people are expected to crowd snowy Park City, Utah, for 10 days starting Thursday. And festival organizers say this year's market will be especially competitive because, of the 127 feature films screening, more are seeking distribution than ever before.

But that's only if the movies can make it to Park City. Every year, there's some last-minute computer crash, a mix-up at the film printing lab, an oversight at the Fed Ex warehouse or just ordinary youthful overconfidence that delays a film's arrival to the bitter end. But that breathless sprint to the finish has become as much a part of the Sundance melodrama as those multimillion dollar acquisitions. Indeed, the festival has staggered -- and often customized -- deadlines for that very reason. Filmmakers are often still shooting their films when they submit their entries so it's rare that festival programmers see a finished print before the premiere.

"It's always racing against the clock," said Sundance's director of programming John Cooper.

The close calls are legendary among programmers. In 1996, director Nicole Holofcener decided to hand-deliver the print of "Walking and Talking" instead of sending it ahead. So when she and her team were delayed, her audience was left waiting in the theater for 45 minutes. In 1998, three hours before the Coen brothers were to screen "The Big Lebowski," no one could find the print. The film wasn't finished in time to compete, so at the last minute, programmers had scheduled a screening of a rough cut instead. But, Cooper said, Sundance staffers forgot to request a print from the filmmakers. It ultimately had to be flown from Santa Monica on a private jet.

"I remember I just laid down in the snow at one point," Cooper said. "I was just overwhelmed."

Back in the early 1990s, the New York processing labs (used by many indie filmmakers) were the first to hear who made it into Sundance, because festival staff wanted to make sure competing filmmakers would be prioritized to meet festival deadlines. With the advent of digital filmmaking -- a phenomenon that has created its own set of problems -- filmmakers can be working right up to the days before their premieres, editing movies on their laptops.

This year, even veterans of the festival like director Randall Miller and his screenwriter wife Jody Savin were pulling all-nighters to wrap up by this weekend. Last Thursday, eight days before their comedic drama "Bottle Shock" was set to premiere, Savin and Miller were tucked away in a Burbank screening room, scanning the latest print of their film. A scratch on the second reel and milky color on the fourth reel meant they'd have to order yet another reprint -- and put off the Sundance programmers one more day.

"They've called me twice a day for the last week saying, 'Is it coming?' " said Miller, who didn't send a rough cut of his film to festival director Geoff Gilmore until Nov. 1 -- two months after the official submissions deadline.

Meanwhile, director Clark Gregg was still working on his directorial debut "Choke," an adaptation of the 2001 Chuck Palahniuk novel, a week before its Monday premiere. Gregg, whose day job is costarring on "The New Adventures of Old Christine," was looking for one last image to use for a fantasy sequence. The scene depicts Sam Rockwell's character attempting to prolong his sexual encounter by conjuring decidedly nonorgasmic images.

"By most people's standards, it's a bit of a miracle that we're even ready," Gregg said. "It's a miracle we were able to get a cut decent enough that they would accept it. Their deadline was seven or eight weeks after we finished shooting [principal photography]. . . . We thought we had called in all the favors available to us just to get the movie made and then we found out we needed more favors to [finish] the movie up."

Though "Nerakhoon" director Ellen Kuras has spent 23 years on her documentary -- the story of one man's escape to the U.S. from Communist Laos -- she didn't complete her film until last Friday morning, just 10 days before her Monday premiere. That's because she had to keep her day job as a director of photography to fund the film. Just a few hours after wrapping the project, Kuras was stunned to have finished.

"I'm absolutely thrilled that I'm going to have a private life again," she said.

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gina.piccalo@latimes.com

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On the Web

More Sundance: Photos, a breaking news blog and video interviews with celebrities and film industry power brokers at

TheEnvelope.com/sundance.

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